by Liz Borkowski 

Via the Center for Media and Democracy, I’ve just learned about an article from the journal Tobacco Control that provides insight into yet another instructive facet of the Tobacco Wars: Philip Morris’s plan to combat the declining social acceptability of smoking. The article authors – P.A. McDaniel, E.A. Smith, and R.E. Malone – examined documents made public through litigation against the tobacco industry for details on the industry’s “Project Sunshine” plan, which was launched in 1996 to combat the declining social acceptability of smoking. In particular, they focused on the company’s “Fair Play” strategy, which was designed to limit the effectiveness of the tobacco control movement.

Since other tactics honed by the tobacco industry (e.g., manufacturing uncertainty, slamming opponents’ science as “junk”) have been adopted so successfully by other industries fighting regulation, this strategy is probably already in wide use by other industries fighting attempts to regulate or reduce use of their products. In fact, now that I’ve read this article, I can easily imagine the playbook that would look something like this:


Divide & Conquer: Figure out which groups in the movement want the fewest concessions from your industry. Pretend that you share their goals – for instance, keeping children from smoking – and offer them money. If they refuse, use it as evidence that they’re unreasonable. If they agree, trumpet your partnership with the group as evidence of your sincerity and goodwill. Also try to create schisms within the movement, so your opponents will waste their energy fighting over which goals to pursue (e.g., keeping kids from smoking vs. banning smoking in public place).

You get bonus points if you can fund projects that actually advance your industry’s goals – for instance, anti-teen-smoking ads that actually make smoking look attractive to teens.

Paint Your Opponents as Extremists: Suggest that your opponents actually don’t want to stop at banning your product, but will in fact go on to try and restrict alcohol, red meat, and anything else ordinary hardworking people enjoy.

Meanwhile, of course, you’re trumpeting your alliances with the more “moderate” groups. Throw some money at philanthropic causes (e.g., domestic violence prevention, children’s education), too, to show that you’re the nice guy and it’s your opponents who actually don’t have the best interests of humanity at heart.

Invoke the “Trial Lawyers” Bogeyman: Suggest that your opponents are in league with trial lawyers and that they are really motivated by greed. (Don’t worry about the irony in the situation; most people won’t pick up on it.)

You get bonus points if you team up with other industries who are trying to fend off lawsuits and regulations and use the “greedy trial lawyers” bogeyman to push for legislation that will limit the legal and regulatory threats against you. Give your campaign a name that sounds positive, too, like “tort reform.”

Use Your Influence: Ask your friends at the IRS to investigate your worst enemies to see if they’re complying with all the rules for tax-exempt organizations. Ask your legislator friends to hold hearings on the effectiveness of programs designed to reduce the harm caused by your product, and send them evidence of “waste” and “abuse” by the organizations running them.

What other industries have been working from this playbook?