Front Groups

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Creating alliances and front groups
To mobilize farmers, retailers, advertising agencies, the hospitality industry,
grassroots and anti-tax groups with a view to influencing legislation.

WHO Definitions of Tobacco Industry Tactics for resisting effective tobacco control, 2009.''


A front group is an organisation that purports to represent one agenda while in reality it serves some other party or interest whose sponsorship is hidden or rarely mentioned. The tobacco industry has a long history of using front groups which often have had hidden links to the tobacco industry. Sometimes they are founded or funded by others like Think Tanks, PR Companies, or Lobby Groups. Although often difficult to detect, the use of front groups is a clear example of Third Party Techniques.

Some groups with an involvement with the tobacco industry have been very opaque about their funding. The now defunct European Science and Environment Forum claimed that "To maintain its independence and impartiality, ESEF accepts funding only from charities, and the income it receives is from the sale of its publications."[1] In fact, ESEF received considerable sums of money from the tobacco industry and de facto functioned as think tank and a "science-watchdog".[2]

There are also degrees of manipulation. Forest, for example, advertises itself as the 'Voice and friend of the smoker'. The group claims to act entirely independently, although most of its funding comes from the tobacco industry. So, despite saying it represents smokers, due to the financial links and evidence contained in documents from the tobacco archive, it can be reasonably described as a front group.

Pioneers in Using Front Groups

The tobacco industry has pioneered the use of front groups to advance its cause, probably more than any other controversial industry. The industry undermined the efforts for international regulation on smoking to such an extent that the [World Health Organisation] decided to investigate. The subsequent report, Tobacco Industry Interference with Tobacco Control, concluded: "The industry has a long history of using seemingly independent ’front groups’ to advance its case". Adding that "smokers’ rights associations, [...] frequently supported by the tobacco industry, have served as front groups in opposition to indoor smoking bans".[3] Such is the case of Forest in the UK.

One of the fundamental problems with front groups - the lack of transparency - is highlighted in the WHO report. "Lack of disclosure by front groups and consultants of their links with the tobacco industry results in unbalanced arguments and evidence, presented without statements of relevant competing interests."

Expect More Front Organisations

Although the WHO and research into the archives of previously secret internal tobacco documents exposed how front groups were used, the industry continues to use this tactic to push its agenda. Ironically the success of UN Framework Convention on Tobacco Control Article 5.3, which prohibits direct industry lobbying of governments, means that the industry is more, rather than less likely, to rely on others. The more the industry is constrained by national and international law, the more it will fund groups or think tanks whose agenda dovetails into its own.

There is evidence, outlined here on TobaccoTactics, that the industry still uses front groups to further its aims on key issues which affect the industry, namely the Point of Sale Display Ban and the debate on Plain Packaging.

For example, Australian documents leaked in 2010 showed that British American Tobacco, Philip Morris and Imperial Tobacco paid substantial funds to set up and run the Alliance of Australian Retailers. Chris Argent of Philip Morris was heavily involved with the day-to-day management of the the AAR and liaised regularly with The Civic Group, the PR firm charged with creating and running the AAR. For a fuller story see the Tobacco Control Research Group blog Big Tobacco Create Retail Group as a Disguise


  • Also see the page on Astroturfing for examples of a very specific form of the use of front groups: those pretending to be a grassroots group, a genuine activist group from the bottom up.

Notes

  1. ESEF, Mission Statement, undated, accessed June 2011
  2. ESEF, Work for Coming Months, Undated, accessed June 2011
  3. World Health Organisation, "Tobacco Industry Interference with Tobacco Control", 2008