Lobbyists: what alcohol and gambling learned from tobacco

By Tamasin Cave
13 Jan 2014

The addiction industries – gambling, alcohol and now sugar – had it tough last week. All are under pressure to defend their industries against increasing evidence of their harm and calls for intervention. But the chances of this government acting in the wider public interest are almost nil. Lobbying by these industries has put paid to that.

The lobbying strategies they employ to win politicians to their cause are strikingly similar. And they have all learnt their tactics from one industry: tobacco.

The lobbying starts with denial. When the sugar industry was last week forced onto the back foot by public health scientists calling for action to cut sugar intake to protect public health, the predictable response was to deny the now substantial evidence showing sugar’s harm: ‘Sugars... are not the cause of obesity,’ said industry lobby group, the Food and Drink Federation. This has long been the position of the industry.

The fifty year campaign to deny the link between tobacco and disease is well documented. "Doubt is our product", as one tobacco executive wrote in 1969. Put plainly, no one was to believe the evidence before them. People must remain in doubt. The doctors and academics calling for action this week were quite right to dub sugar "the new tobacco".

Alongside industry denial campaigns, the addiction lobbyists have also sought to embed themselves in government and dominate any policy-response to harm caused by their product. Of course, if you are a social pariah that is going to be harder than if you are seen as a "responsible" company actively working to tackle problems. Lobbyists have worked hard to reposition their industries as the solution to a manageable problem.

Tobacco got this wrong. In the eighties, executives worried in private that their denial message was becoming untenable. An internal BAT from the time shows tobacco scientists arguing that they should publicly acknowledge that there was a "probability that smoking is harmful to a small percentage of heavy smokers". It was a proposed damage limitation exercise. "By giving a little we may gain a lot. By giving nothing we stand to lose everything", one said. In the event it took another 20 years for them to publicly concede that smoking was bad for you.

The alcohol industry learnt from the tobacco industry’s mistake. For decades, alcohol’s strategy to fend off government regulation has been to redefine the problem with alcohol as one affecting a small minority of heavy drinkers, contrary to the evidence. It has then come up with solutions to this problem – notably ineffective education and awareness programmes – which has thus far allowed it to paint itself as a responsible industry, actively working to tackle harm. This positioning has granted it a role inside government where it is helping to write public health policy.

This is how Miller Beer, formerly owned by tobacco giant Philip Morris, explained the rationale in a five year plan from the mid nineties designed to defend its product from government interference. The strategy was to go big on alcohol’s role as a "responsible corporate citizen" and "stress alcohol education programmes and messages so as to develop public policy from a framework of education and responsible drinking, as opposed to one of control". It was a plan expressly designed to stave off effective government action. Miller vowed to "fight aggressively, with all available resources, against any attempt, from any quarter" public health efforts that would curb its ability to manufacture and market its product.

Last week’s report by the British Medical Journal, into lobbying by the alcohol industry to kill plans to introduce a minimum price on alcohol units, shows that this strategy is alive and well twenty years later. It documents the extraordinary levels of access enjoyed by drinks firms. The message being pumped into our political system by their lobbyists is that the industry is on top of the problem. The government can back off.

Diageo, for example, urged the Health Secretary to work with it to deliver an "enhanced industry-led solution... before considering a legislative approach". In return, it promised to be a "constructive and supportive" partner for as long as the government stuck to the "contentious principles of partnership", rather than "apportioning liability or blame".

The result of this intensive lobbying campaign, the purpose of which was to protect profits, was that the government ditched its plans for minimum pricing. Politicians, the BMJ report rightly concluded, were "dancing to the tune of the drinks industry".

Tobacco learnt the hard way, but it also led the way on another tactic. When in 1998 it was forced to pay over $200 billion in damages in the largest civil settlement in US history – a legal process that exposed the enormous lengths they had gone to, through PR and lobbying, to defend their product – it needed to change tack. There was no going back. The industry needed a way to retake control of the smoking and health debate.

It decided that the best way forward was to engage in "continuous dialogue" with its critics. This, one industry veteran advised, would make outright opposition much less easy or, at least, seem much less sensible and more political. British American Tobacco (BAT) called in KPMG to draft a plan, called ‘The Project: The way forward’, to steer it out of trouble. It explored ways in which BAT could be seen to be the one ‘responsible’ cigarette-maker in a disreputable business. It argued that the company’s overriding objective had to be to regain control of its own destiny by re-establishing dialogue with key groups.

Cue the gambling industry. Last week saw it attacked by Ed Miliband, who called for greater powers for councils to tackle the spread of high street gambling machines that allow people to place stakes of up to £100 every 20 seconds. Miliband’s comments prompted the Prime Minister to rather ambiguously state that they can "probably sort it out". Government interference is something the gambling business desperately wants to avoid.

The industry wants to keep talking. As a result, it has been on a charm offensive. In November last year, The Rank Group published a corporate social responsibility report, ‘The Gameplan’, which it sent to every constituency MP where the firm operates. It was headed by a quote from Rank CEO, Ian Burke: "We welcome the opportunity to engage with other parties who are interested in the question of how the gaming industry can become a force for greater societal and economic good in the United Kingdom", he wrote. The document similarly ends with the hope "that those who may be concerned about our aims feel able to come forward and discuss them with us". It is calling for ongoing dialogue with its critics. It is calling for delay.

It is succeeding in part thanks to another lobbying tactic, again one developed by tobacco lobbyists. Attached to his muted concern, David Cameron also echoed the industry’s line that "empirical evidence is needed before making any changes" to regulations.

Like the tobacco industry’s recruited scientists, or ‘whitecoats’ as they were known, the gambling business has developed its own industry-funded research programme. As William Hill, Britain’s biggest bookies, said following Cameron’s comments: "We believe that a harm reduction strategy should be informed by facts, academic research and a proper economic impact assessment." Industry-funded research was once described by lobbyists for sugar interests as "a main prop of the industry’s defence".

The gambling industry has also pledged to continue to work with government "to look at additional harm reduction measures, such as increasing the level of responsible gambling messaging", a tactic, as noted above, straight from the alcohol industry’s own gameplan.

The response of the City to the recent row over gambling machines was enlightening. Barclays analysts noted that "there has been no change to regulation", but did concede that the "negative news-flow will weigh on the sector", which will mean more work for the industry’s lobbyists. But as another pointed out: "no material regulatory changes are likely in the near term". And for that, we can thank the lobbyists.

Just before becoming Prime Minister, David Cameron pledged to "sort out... secret corporate lobbying". He promised to introduce transparency regulations so that we may see some of this activity and the investment put into thwarting regulation. The Lobbying Bill, which reaches report stage in the Lords today [Monday], will do nothing of the sort. It is a sham. Lobbying by corporations has been exempted from the proposed register of lobbyists. There will be no requirement for sugar companies, alcohol firms or gambling interests to open up their lobbying to public scrutiny.

In the absence of disclosure rules we must instead recognise, understand and counter lobbying of the kind exposed last week. We must become more familiar with the idea that influence is something that lobbyists construct, using a set of tools. Campaigns to head off regulation employ a set of techniques that have been developed by lobbyists.

Call these out and they lose some of their power. Then – probably only then – might we get some action from government.

* A Quiet Word: Lobbying, Crony Capitalism and Broken Politics in Britain, by Tamasin Cave and Andy Rowell (Bodley Head, Random House) is due to be published in March 2014.

* More from the Alliance for Lobbying Transparency (ALT) campaign: http://www.lobbyingtransparency.org

* More on the Lobbying Bill on Ekklesia: http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/lobbyingbill

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© Tamasin Cave is a director of SpinWatch (http://spinwatch.org) and leads the Alliance for Lobbying Transparency coalition, which is campaigning for a statutory register of lobbyists in the UK.

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