Smoke and mirrors on issue funding won’t deter critics

When it comes to communicating your sources of funding, the issue isn't just how things are, but how things appear, writes crisis comms expert Tony Jaques.

Transparency should be the basis for effective issue management, especially when it comes to who’s paying the bills. How a campaign is funded not only needs to be appropriate, but must also be seen to be appropriate.

This was the lesson for a group of doctors lobbying for nicotine e-cigarettes as a way to help people quit smoking when a news report revealed their set-up funding came from an e-liquid supplier and an e-cigarette company. 

The Australian Tobacco Harm Reduction Association (ATHRA), which wants to overturn the ban on vaping nicotine without a doctor’s prescription, said it would “get funding from the vendors and whoever else – not tobacco companies obviously – but it will be at arm’s length, with a view to having a detailed website on the safety of e-cigarettes, where to buy them, how to use them.”

Asked why they had removed the founding sponsors’ logos from their website, ATHRA Chair Colin Mendelsohn reportedly said it had been done on legal advice and not to “reduce transparency.” However the website of the e-cigarette maker, which offers an online medical prescription service, still says “Nicovape is proudly a sponsor of the Australian Tobacco Harm Reduction Association,” alongside the association’s logo.

While Mendelsohn told Fairfax the vaping industry is “quite separate from the tobacco industry”, the perception is very different. Although the Association’s two Australian sponsors are small local companies, the vaping industry worldwide is in fact well and truly dominated by Big Tobacco.

Recent analysis reported the vaping industry is today worth about $10 billion globally and is expected to reach $34 billion by 2021. And whereas it was once the province of small businesses, the vaping industry is increasingly the domain by the major tobacco companies, which own some of the world’s biggest e-cigarette brands.

Moreover the National Health and Medical Research Council says there is insufficient evidence to conclude whether e-cigarettes can help smokers quit. The Council also says the widely used claim that e-cigarettes are 95% less harmful than tobacco cigarettes comes from a study based on opinion rather than empirical evidence, with concerns raised about potential conflicts of interest.

Big Tobacco has a long history of using front organisations to fight restrictive regulations. Think no further than the Alliance of Australian Retailers which was established to oppose plain packaging of cigarettes and claimed to represent owners of corner stores, milk bars, news agents and service stations. It was soon revealed that their TV advertising was almost entirely funded by three of the world’s largest tobacco companies, and plain packaging became the law.

However the cigarette industry is by no means alone in the creation of fake community groups. For example, some years ago the makers of cardboard milk cartons set up “Mothers Opposed to Pollution” as a supposed environmental activist group to campaign against plastic milk containers in Australia and New Zealand. Then there was shopping mall giant Westfield which once admitted in court that it had used apparently independent local resident groups to resist rival retail developments.

The purpose in the present case is not to suggest that ATHRA is a front organisation, or to cast doubt on the sincerity of well-intentioned doctors who want to change the law.

But in terms of issue management, it raises the question whether the association has seemingly allowed itself to be compromised by commercial interests. The issue here is not just how things are, but how things appear, and whether trusted medical practitioners should be seen to be lobbying on behalf of the makers of nicotine-based e-cigarettes.

Tony Jaques is the managing director of Issue Outcomes P/L.


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