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Tobacco Industry's Manipulation of Grassroots Campaigns: An Assault on Democracy

Thursday 17 August 2023, 10:22AM

By Hapai Te Hauora

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Recently, Farah Hancock published "The 'corner dairy campaign' quietly backed by big tobacco" which brought to light the insidious tactics of big tobacco to keep Kiwis addicted to tobacco products and keep killing New Zealanders for profit. 

The campaign by big tobacco calls upon New Zealanders to rally behind small dairy owners facing the alleged threats posed by the Smokefree 2025 Act. The campaign's website features testimonials from individuals who appear to be dairy owners, expressing their concerns about the potential impact on their livelihoods. But, as Farah’s investigative efforts have revealed, these messages of support for the campaign's goals are far from impartial. The fine print at the bottom of the page acknowledges the campaign's funding and support from tobacco giants BAT New Zealand and Imperial Brands.

"The tobacco industry's involvement in campaigns like these highlight their manipulation of public sentiment for their own profit," says Jason Alexander, Interim CEO of Hāpai Te Hauora. "It is concerning to witness tobacco companies exploiting the concerns of small business owners to further their agenda, which ultimately endangers public health. "The influence of tobacco companies on initiatives like the 'Save Our Stores' campaign risks, exacerbating existing health disparities. 

Alexander says "The Smokefree 2025 Act and similar policies have the potential to improve Māori health outcomes by reducing smoking rates, campaigns like this undermine these efforts. Whānau māori, already burdened by higher smoking rates and associated health issues, are particularly vulnerable to the tobacco industry's deceptive practices, that attempt to maintain the status quo"

The tactics employed by the campaign, including the distribution of posters featuring alarming messages such as "This dairy is under threat of closure," paint a picture of desperation and fear, overshadowing the core issue at hand - the long-term health and well-being of New Zealanders. 

British American Tobacco and Imperial Brands chose to remain silent on certain questions, and claimed to be "supporting the voice of New Zealand's small convenience store owners being pushed out of business," yet their reluctance to address funding sources and misleading claims is an indication of their intentions.

"The tobacco industry's actions are an assault on democracy," states Alexander. "The fact that they can influence public discourse and government policies through misleading campaigns demonstrates a dire need for stronger regulations to prevent such manipulative practices." 

The campaign's use of misleading statistics and fear-mongering tactics is reminiscent of strategies employed by tobacco companies in the past. As mentioned in Hancock’s article, University of Otago Health Professor Janet Hoek remarks, "These advertisements show us just how deeply hypocritical tobacco companies are. They are advocating for change while simultaneously supporting the continued sales of harmful tobacco products." 

This campaign is not an isolated incident; similar tactics have been observed globally. History reveals that tobacco companies have consistently utilised such tactics to obstruct and subvert policies aimed at reducing smoking rates and improving public health.

Alexander says, "As New Zealand moves towards its Smokefree 2025 goal, it is of utmost importance that the voices of public health experts, community leaders, and concerned communities resonate louder than those of tobacco companies. The future of a healthier New Zealand lies in the balance, it is essential we recognise and call out the deceptive strategies employed by tobacco corporations who continue to value profit over people, livelihoods over the lives of whānau.