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British American Tobacco’s ‘resilience’ does not herald a ‘Better Tomorrow’

29 Apr 2020

By Andy Rowell, Director of the Tobacco Tactics team at the Tobacco Control Research Group, University of Bath, a partner in the STOP global tobacco industry watchdog.

As British American Tobacco (BAT) prepares for tomorrow’s Annual General Meeting, the University of Bath’s Tobacco Control Research Group and Action on Smoking and Health (ASH), are calling out the tobacco company for undertaking a rebranding exercise intended to hook a whole new generation of young adults to its tobacco and nicotine products, in the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Smoking remains the leading cause of premature death killing 8 million people a year[1], the majority in low and middle income countries, and smokers in hospital who have coronavirus are at a higher risk than non-smokers of severe illness and death.[2] The Tobacco Control Research Group and ASH believe that BAT is being cynical and irresponsible at this time by running a rebranding campaign.[3]

Over the last six weeks, in the middle of the pandemic, the tobacco company has changed its image to try and appear more socially responsible. On the 18th of March, the same day that the British government announced most schools across England would shut until further notice due to the pandemic, BAT was talking to its institutional investors as part of its Capital Markets Day. The day before, Chief Scientific adviser, Sir Patrick Vallance had said it would be a “good outcome” if the eventual death toll in the UK could be kept below 20,000.[4]

To coincide with the Investor Day, BAT had ripped up its old, well known, tobacco leaf logo and replaced it with rainbow-themed colours[5] and a strap line “For a Better Tomorrow”, a slogan first used by its non-tobacco nicotine products division, Nicoventures. Rainbows have become a symbol of hope for children round the world[6] hoping for a truly better tomorrow, for BAT this is just another marketing tool.

Rather than recognise the potential harm smoking might be playing in the pandemic, BAT’s Chief Executive Officer, Jack Bowles, reassured investors that the cigarette company remained a safe bet: “I would like to emphasise two things, one - our business is one of the most resilient sectors of the global economy. And second, to date, we have seen no material disruption to our business,” he said.[7]

Bowles and other senior executives then outlined BAT’s new strategic mission which was “about stimulating the senses of new adult generations”, i.e ensuring that it hooked a whole new generation of young adults into addiction.

On one “mission” slide about “stimulating the senses”, iconic images of people smoking remain front and centre. Whilst BAT intends to also promote Next Generation Products (NGPs) in the coming decade, presentations outlined how BAT’s combustibles business remained the “the engine room of value creation” of the business, where BAT “is the fastest growing international player.”

BAT’s top executives outlined how the company intended to use its NGPs to keep people addicted to nicotine. The company classifies where smoking has been restricted due to smokefree regulations as “lost occasions”. To counter this, it has a strategy to recapture lost consumer moments,” which are “maintained” around the clock.

Paul Lageweg, Director, New Categories told investors how “cigarettes have lost some of their historic needs and moments … But through our multi-category portfolio we can reclaim most of the lost moments and needs. So we are growing the cake itself.” Growing the cake means preventing smokers escaping their addiction and entrapping generations to come. This is just at a time when the priority should be helping smokers to quit on route to achieving the Government’s ambition for England to be smokefree by 2030. Achieving that ambition will require investment, and the Government promised to look at mechanisms to make the tobacco industry provide the necessary funding. In the aftermath of COVID the argument is now stronger than ever that the tobacco industry must be made to finance a Smokefree 2030 Fund.[8] CEO Jack Bowles has rightly been criticised for his 9.5% pay rise as the world struggles with COVID-19.[9] This is an industry that can afford to pay and must be made to pay.

For more on the Tobacco Industry’s response to the pandemic, go to the University of Bath’s updated, which includes new pages on COVID-19, greenwashing and BAT. ASH’s Smokefree 2030 campaign, supported by leading health organisations, can be endorsed here and resources to help people quit smoking during the COVID-19 pandemic are here.