Tony Abbott, big tobacco and the "astro turf" organisations

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Tony Abbott has a big decision to make — will he take the money or will he consider the health of Australians who smoke? Senior correspondent Barry Everingham reports.

When Parliament resumes for the Budget session in a few weeks time, Nicola Roxon will introduce first in the world legislation which will outlaw advertising on cigarette packaging.

The rest of the western world is breathlessly agog — success here will mean they will undoubtedly follow.

Which way will Tony jump?

He already gets millions from the fossil fuel industry, and their cohorts in the tobacco lobby spent a reputed $4 million during the last federal election campaign campaigning against plain packaging.

They also pump a huge amount into the Liberal Party’s coffers and Tony Abbott and his health spokesman Peter Dutton are tap dancing around the question, refusing to give straight answers.

It’s all depressingly familiar.

He’s letting the polluters off the hook — will he stand by while thousands of Australians die from cigarette smoking?

The tobacco lobby started in the 1950’s and were a powerful force up until the 90’s when they started losing huge health-related law suits. Up until then, they used every trick in the book – the link to cancer wasn’t proven, other factors also caused cancer, the science wasn’t settled – on and on they blabbed.

Phillip Morris' PR firm

Lastly, they trotted out the old “freedom of choice” line and co-opted the American Civil Liberties Union with large financial bribes to recast the debate into one of choice. Phillip Morris were the first to go it alone with the help of the public relations giant Burson-Marsteller. In a brilliant stroke (which is not a good word to use in this context) they financed a “grass roots” organisation called the National Smokers Alliance.

The theory was that people were sick of multinational corporations; they didn’t trust them.

But they trusted community groups.

And, what do you think? The first of the hundreds of “astro turf” (i.e. phoney grass roots) organisations – like those you now see preaching climate scepticism – were born. Grass roots organisations were powerful. Governments listened to them.

Phillip Morris was advised to stay under the radar and all the advertisements, telemarketing, paid canvassers, newsletters and letters sent to government agencies were paid for and staffed by Burson-Marstellar.

The plot thickened.

Another giant PR outfit was hired to attack the science. APCO Worldwide proposed the formation of The Advancement of Sound Science Coalition (TASSC).

Tens of thousands of letters were sent out to businesses seeking support for the fight for “sound science”. The proposed research list was impressive and included: global warming, nuclear waste disposal, diseases and pests in agricultural products, biotechnology, eco-labelling for EC products and food processing and packaging.

Early membership included Exxon, Amoco, Occidental Petroleum, Santa Fe Pacific Gold, Louisiana Chemical Association and Dow Chemicals.

They hired scientists (including Dr Fred Singer who now debunks climate science on behalf of climate sceptics) who were paid to debunk any research linking 2nd hand smoke to cancer. One of the famous quotes from the political satire Thank You for Smoking was when Nick Naylor, smooth talking tobacco lobbyist and vice president of a tobacco lobby called The Academy of Tobacco Studies, is hailed a” genius” after 15 years of research found no link between nicotine and lung cancer!

The other highlight of the film was when the Marlboro men started dying of lung cancer, earning the Marlboro Red brand the nickname “Cowboy killers”.

The goal was to spread uncertainty, to delay action, to eke out and maximise their market share — just like Big Oil and Big Coal are trying to do today with the help of the same politicians, same PR company, same pseudo-environmental and fake grass roots organisations.

The biggest multinational funder of the climate sceptic movement is Exxon — the oil giant funds over 150 phoney think tanks and astro turf organisations with environmentally-friendly sounding names like the Coalition for Sound Science.

Tony Abbott has bought the climate change “argument”— he’s on record saying it’s “crap”.

Will he stop the legislation banning branding on cigarette packaging? What’s his price?

Recent letter in the Melbourne broadsheet The Age wasn’t far off the mark.

Mike Puleson of Brunswick wrote:
“If Tony Abbott is the final question of “the end of history” [of the ALP] we have cause to tremble. We can do better than that”.

And so can the Liberals and all Australians.  
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