• Our analysis of the media debate around the demonised tobacco industry found that companies’ efforts to reposition themselves as health brands were met with significant backlash and inflicted additional harm to their reputation.
  • We suggest that tobacco PR and comms should focus on more viable goals, such as fixing the reputation of e-cigarettes and educating the public on nicotine, which is still believed by many to cause cancer.
  • We also suggest that companies should highlight the medical benefits of cannabis and explore a new public health ground: secondhand smoking.

View a one-page infographic summary of the analysis

The tobacco industry has been in an ongoing crisis management mode. Following years of negative press coverage and lawsuits for marketing and selling cigarettes, big tobacco companies are now aggressively pushing to change their image. 

To see how they can become better at reimagining themselves, we analysed 2,116 English-language articles about the tobacco industry published in top-tier media outlets in the last two years. Here’s what we found:

1. Don’t try too hard to position yourself as a health brand

Aiming to expand its shrinking customer base as cigarette smoking declines, Big Tobacco continuously aims to reposition itself as an innovative, tech-savvy champion of quitting and youth tobacco prevention, often appropriating the language of public health.

But it went further than that – some tobacco giants want to be perceived as health brands. British American Tobacco (BAT), for instance, has a biotech subsidiary in the U.S. — Kentucky BioProcessing — which launched early clinical trials for a COVID-19 vaccine. And Philip Morris International (PMI), the Swiss-American maker of Marlboro cigarettes, has bought two drug firms and, most notably, the sizeable British biotech Vectura, which makes inhaled medicines to treat respiratory illnesses, and counts Novartis and GlaxoSmithKline among its customers. 

Philip Morris characterised its offer for pharma business Vectura as part of its “natural evolution into a broader healthcare and wellness company”. Explaining this rationale made Jacek Olczak, Philip Morris’ CEO, the most influential corporate spokesperson in the debate:

But when one of the world’s biggest tobacco groups claims it’s a health company, it is bound to meet scepticism, so it was no surprise that the deal caused a stir. In fact, the backlash against Philip Morris was one of the main tobacco stories in our media sample.

Many campaigners and health groups were quoted as saying that it’s “highly unethical” to not only profit from selling cigarettes but also from treating the diseases they cause. The narrative was shaped by groups such as Cancer Research UK, the British Lung Foundation and Action on Smoking and Health, which became some of the most influential non-profits (after regulators and state agencies) in the debate by saying there is “huge unease” that a tobacco company could profit from treatments for conditions such as asthma, emphysema and chronic bronchitis.

We determine an organisation’s media impact in the context of a topic by looking at its media influence score calculated in terms of coverage by high-profile media outlets, topic relevancy score measuring its contextual relevance, and media visibility as measured by the number of mentions.

Many reports drew a parallel with Big Oil, whose efforts to position itself as environmentally conscious amount to loud accusations of greenwashing.

Our media analysis suggests that tobacco companies would have a pretty hard time positioning themselves as health brands – the backlash and the accusations of hypocrisy would always be inevitable and they would always lose control of the narrative.

However, instead of aggressively trying to turn their image upside down, tobacco companies can try to position themselves as socially responsible companies that are committed to reducing harm and promoting public health.

2. Focus on fixing e-cigarettes’ portrayal

E-cigarettes were once billed as the biggest chance to end smoking as we know it and take aim at the largest cause of preventable death. But top public health authorities have been sending an unwavering message: vaping is dangerous.

The warning is meant to stop people who have never smoked — particularly children — from starting to vape. But a growing number of scientists and policymakers say the relentless portrayal of e-cigarettes as a public health menace, however well-intentioned, is a profound disservice to the 40 million American smokers who could benefit from the devices. 

The latest blow to e-cigarettes’ reputation came in June 2022, when the US effectively banned Juul after the Food and Drug Administration ordered the e-cigarette maker to remove its popular products from the marketplace, saying it did not have enough data to be sure that marketing the firm’s products was “appropriate for the protection of public health”.

This is what made Juul the most influential organisation in our media sample in terms of media impact.

Juul‘s ban also made Regulation and policy the main topic around the tobacco industry, spurring an additional debate about the Health and wellness aspects of e-cigarettes:

Tobacco companies should be better at communicating the mounting evidence that suggests vaping is far less dangerous than smoking, a fact that is rarely pointed out to the public. They should promote scientific research to demonstrate that e-cigarettes expose users to fewer carcinogens than cigarettes and that the benefit of helping adult smokers switch to a safer alternative outweighed the potential harm of hooking young people on nicotine. 

By developing marketing campaigns that concentrate on the harm reduction potential of e-cigarettes and promoting responsible use of the product, tobacco companies can demonstrate their commitment to helping smokers quit and reducing the harm caused by smoking.

For example, Philip Morris‘ PR efforts would be much more effective if they didn’t concentrate on the controversial claim that the company is becoming a health brand but on the benefits of its flagship e-cigarette brand, iQOS.

3. Educate the public on nicotine

Many people mistakenly believe that nicotine is responsible for smoking-related cancers and other illnesses. The misperceptions around nicotine have given it a bad reputation, especially over the last few years. The subsequent decisions made by governments, as well as smokers as a result of the misinformation, underscore how vital it is for those who have gained the public’s trust to be properly informed about nicotine research so they can communicate accurate information to the public.

The messaging around nicotine is an essential part of changing misperceptions of nicotine, and correcting those misperceptions will influence behaviour. Studies involving corrective nicotine messaging revealed slightly decreased misperceptions of nicotine harm, but attitudes and behaviours towards combustible tobacco products remained unchanged.

Although people generally choose to use products they perceive as less harmful, there is a great deal of cognitive dissonance around any kind of smoking. People may think one product is more harmful than another but choose to use it anyway for several reasons, including their personal feelings towards it or the emotional satisfaction it brings them.

This must always be considered by the people who talk to the public about tobacco use. If healthcare professionals, researchers, and influential leaders can convey accurate information on nicotine and the relative risks of tobacco products, smokers will begin to make healthier choices. Clearing up the drug’s health risks will be key to reducing smoking because it will help convince cigarette users to switch to non-combustible options for nicotine.

A company in our research sample which took up to this challenge was Marlboro cigarettes maker Altria. It enlisted an unlikely partner in convincing consumers that nicotine isn’t as bad as they think – its regulator. The company asked the US Food and Drug Administration to tackle misperceptions about nicotine as part of a proposed $US100 million ($130 million) advertising campaign to reduce the harm caused by tobacco.

4. Highlight the medical benefits of cannabis

The industry’s critics have another worry: its need for new consumers if existing smokers move to cigarette alternatives. Moira Gilchrist, vice president of strategic and scientific communications at Philip Morris, asks the same question: “What happens when you run out of all the adult smokers to convert to reduced-risk products?”

Her answer lies in the company’s research into CBD, a non-psychoactive extract from cannabis plants, and its recent acquisition of nicotine pouch and lozenge company Fertin Pharma. Similarly, British American Tobacco executive Kingsley Wheaton told BBC Radio 4’s Today program that cannabis and its derivates are part of the company’s future.

The cannabis industry already has a reputation for innovation and diversification, as cannabis companies are selling products that divert from the traditional consumption of cannabis, including vape-based cannabis products, edibles, oils, and beverages. According to many business publications, Big Tobacco’s efforts to capture the cannabis industry have taken a form similar to other big-business techniques: acquisition, intellectual property, and lobbying for friendly regulation.

But beyond that, if cannabis is going to be the industry’s future, tobacco companies should not frame this as a business decision and a matter of corporate survival, but rather highlight the medical benefits of cannabis, such as its potential to alleviate symptoms of chronic pain, anxiety, and other conditions.

Tobacco companies should also promote safe consumption practices for cannabis, such as avoiding smoking and using alternative methods of consumption such as edibles, vaporizers, and tinctures. By promoting safe consumption practices, tobacco players can help educate the public about the benefits of cannabis and reduce the stigma associated with its use. This will also help with positioning themselves as responsible entities that prioritise the health and safety of their customers.

5. Explore new ground: secondhand smoking

Almost the whole media conversation around the tobacco industry has been focused on active smoking. However, tobacco companies can showcase their commitment to public health by taking part in debates about secondhand smoking, which can cause coronary heart disease, stroke, lung cancer, and other diseases. 

Tobacco companies can use PR to educate smokers on the dangers of secondhand smoke and encourage them to smoke in designated areas away from non-smokers. By providing accurate and informative materials, tobacco companies can help smokers understand the risks associated with secondhand smoke and take steps to minimise exposure to others.

Big Tobacco can also support smoke-free policies and provide funding for initiatives aimed at reducing smoking prevalence. This can include supporting efforts to implement smoke-free laws in public places and workplaces, as well as providing funding for research into the effectiveness of smoke-free policies.

Philip Morris has already started taking steps in this direction by sponsoring so-called “smoke-free” policies at holiday destinations which encourage tourists and locals to stop smoking cigarettes. However, the backlash against its ambition to become a health brand has overshadowed these more practical efforts and there’s been very limited media exposure of this campaign.

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