Philip Morris strikes £5m sponsored content deal to promote e-cigarettes

Tobacco giant Philip Morris International has teamed up with youth-focused Vice Media to promote vaping, in a move that has alarmed health campaigners.

Vice has agreed a deal with PMI to produce sponsored content endorsing ecigarettes, according to two people with direct knowledge of the arrangement. One said the deal would cost the tobacco group £5m and that the campaign was due to start in April.

The push comes amid a global regulatory clampdown on cigarette advertising, following decades of tobacco companies underplaying the risks of smoking and past industry practices of targeting younger consumers in an attempt to hook them at an early age. Like other tobacco groups, the seller of Marlboro cigarettes outside the US has shifted focus to non-combustible nicotine products as traditional smoking wanes.

PMI, the biggest cigarette company in the world by sales, said in an investor presentation last month that it expected “reduced-risk” products, such as its flagship IQOS device, to account for roughly 40 per cent of total revenues by 2025, up from just under 14 per cent, or $4.1bn, last year.

Martin McKee, professor of European public health at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, said the PMI-Vice vaping campaign could be an early harbinger of more youth-focused marketing to come, particularly with the recent UK launch of the fashionable device made by US start-up Juul. “We haven’t seen the intensity of marketing that the US has had yet,” he said. According to Vice, its audience is 18- to 34-year-olds but it is known to attract many younger consumers too. It has been struggling in recent months as advertising revenues have dried up.

In February, it announced that it would be cutting 250 staff as part of a “strategic restructure”. A Vice business previously worked with PMI in 2016, when its Edition Worldwide agency created “white label” videos for the company. The latest PMI initiative will be produced by a team of journalists recruited to work for a new online platform.

George Butterworth, senior policy manager at Cancer Research UK, said that big tobacco companies were finding ways to market ecigarettes that exploited possibilities under EU law. “[They] use a host of PR tactics, including celebrity endorsement, to market these products, which increases the risk of the content being seen by children,” he said UK law, which comes under the EU directive, states that any marketing of ecigarettes “must not be likely to appeal particularly to people under 18, especially by reflecting or being associated with youth culture”.

The Department of Health and Social Care said it would take any “unlawful promotion of tobacco and other nicotine-inhaling products very seriously and expect any organisation found to be flouting the rules to be investigated”.

According to a recruitment message sent via LinkedIn, the new Vice platform on which the campaign is expected to run will cover the broad theme of “change” and “tackle some of the biggest issues facing the world in areas such as health, environment, energy and technology among many others”.

PMI declined to comment Vice said it was launching “an editorially independent media platform” which would tackle some of society’s biggest issues, from fossil fuels to the overuse of plastic. It said the first project would be “a global mission to quit cigarettes”, funded by PMI. It said that new site would not promote ecigarettes or tobacco products.

Cancer Research UK said it had been approached to take part but declined due to the tobacco industry link. A journalist at the Financial Times was approached by headhunters for the project but was asked to sign a non-disclosure agreement before hearing more about the role. The PMI campaign is set to launch just as regulators in the US crack down on the sale of vaping products to young people.

Last week, the US Food and Drug Administration commissioner Scott Gottlieb published draft guidance to curb the “epidemic” use of ecigarettes among teenagers. By contrast, UK authorities do not believe youth vaping is such a problem.

A House of Commons report published last year said that regular vaping among secondary school children was less than 1 per cent. Data published by the Office for National Statistics found that more than half of 16- to 24-year-olds had tried ecigarettes, with roughly 7 per cent being current users.

This article has been revised since its original publication to include a statement from Vice (which had originally declined to comment) that the project will run on an editorially independent media platform, and that it denies the new site will promote ecigarettes or tobacco products.

Read full article here.

Alice Hancock – Financial Times – March 21, 2019.

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