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London PR firm behind ‘grassroots’ pro-vape campaign called ‘Tell Nicola’

A pro-vaping group and a public relations firm in London were behind an astroturf campaign targeting Scottish Government proposals to regulate the vaping industry, The Ferret can reveal. 

Astroturf refers to apparently ‘grassroots groups’ that are actually created and funded by corporations, public relation firms or groups with political interests.

We Vape UK – which does not disclose its funding – used a “specialist political media agency” called MessageSpace to manage Facebook adverts encouraging people to oppose vaping regulation during a Scottish Government consultation

MessageSpace was founded by Guido Fawkes editor-in-chief Paul Staines, a political blogger who once described himself as “anarcho-libertarian, or Thatcherite on drugs”. In 2017 he wrote a blog entitled Smoking Is Good For Us which argued that blaming smokers for spiralling healthcare costs was a “moral fable”.

We Vape UK is managed by Mark Oates, a fellow at the Adam Smith Institute (ASI) which was rated “Highly Opaque” by Transparify because it does not reveal its funders. Transparify is a group that examines the financial transparency of think tanks. The ASI is a free-market think tank which reportedly influences UK Government policy.

We are increasingly seeing pro-vaping campaigns being run by people or organisations either associated with the tobacco industry or neo-liberal think tanks.

Andy Rowell, senior research fellow at the University of Bath and a research partner in STOP, a global tobacco industry watchdog.

Tobacco Tactics – a Bath University project which monitors the tobacco industry – points out that ASI has received funding from the tobacco industry. In 2013, ASI – disclosed it had received £13,000 from tobacco companies.

In February the Scottish Government launched a public consultation into “additional controls to limit advertising and promotion of vaping products in Scotland” as part of a commitment made in the 2018 Tobacco-Control Action Plan

The consultation asked for the public to respond with their views on whether new regulations should be implemented to control how vape products are advertised.

The alleged astroturf campaign was called  “Tell Nicola”. It was launched by We Vape UK, with a Facebook page created in February this year. It began running ads on 10 March 2022. The advertiser disclaimer identified MessageSpace as the organisation responsible for the ads. 

Although no direct evidence of tobacco industry funding of the campaign has been uncovered – and there is nothing unlawful about these activities – critics have raised concerns that pro-vaping campaigns are being run by organisations either associated with the tobacco industry or neo-liberal think-tanks, some of which have accepted money from the tobacco industry.

The adverts run by MessageSpace used the same campaign graphics as those used by the We Vape UK “Tell Nicola” campaign. The Tell Nicola ads primarily targeted those aged between 25-45.

The We Vape UK Facebook page was created on 9 February 2021. It has three individuals responsible for running the site, two based in the UK and one based in the US. Created as a “Community” Page, We Vape UK has 9,762 followers on Facebook, at time of writing. 

We Vape Project Ltd was incorporated on 4 August 2020 with the sole director being ASI fellow, Mark Oates. The nature of the business is recorded as “activities of political organisations”. The accounts for We Vape UK have been registered with Companies House but do not disclose any details of income. They state the net assets are £1. 

The We Vape UK Twitter account states that “We Vape is an independent campaign organisation for vapers by vapers”. Despite asking for donations, its social media accounts and website do not disclose its sources of funding, nor is Oates’s fellowship of the ASI clearly stated. 

The We Vape UK website – a link to which is made on the company Twitter profile – was recently deleted but is live again. 

Andy Rowell, a senior research fellow at the University of Bath and a research partner in STOP, a global tobacco industry watchdog, stated: “We are increasingly seeing pro-vaping campaigns being run by people or organisations either associated with the tobacco industry or neo-liberal think tanks, which have a history of taking tobacco money. Often the funding for these campaigns and connections to the industry are opaque and not immediately obvious”.  

Sheila Duffy, chief executive of ASH Scotland, said the campaign should not be trusted. She added: “Astroturf is fake grass, and astroturfing is about giving the appearance of fake grassroots opinion. It is a marketing tactic used by those who seek to oppose health measures, protecting the profits of health-harming corporations.”

Duffy claimed that astroturfing is used “time and again by the tobacco industry and their allies” and argued it is “dangerous because it distorts the debate and amplifies false concerns”. “Elected representatives and policy influencers should always be alive to these dangers,” she added.

Duffy continued: “Public understanding and support is also key to good, effective public health measures like smoke-free indoor public spaces, and we encourage everyone to be fully aware about misinformation, incentives and misdirection in public health debates.”

Message Space declined to comment.

Mark Oates and We Vape UK did not reply to our requests for a comment.

Pro-vaping firms have also been active in lobbying MSPs, according to entries registered in the Scottish Parliament’s lobbying register. 

They include tobacco company Philip Morris Ltd, JBP Associates, British American Tobacco UK, Japan Tobacco International, Independent British Vape Trade Association, Imperial Brands PLC, JAC Vapour Ltd.

Philip Morris Ltd – a US multinational tobacco firm –lobbied David Torrance MSP in April this year. Philip Morris’s entry in the lobbying register says: “We discussed the Scottish Government’s consultation on electronic cigarette advertising and promotion, setting out Philip Morris Limited’s position on the matter.

“We sought to ascertain the member’s views on the subject of vaping regulations. In addition, we briefed the member on our company’s portfolio of smoke-free products, including heated tobacco and electronic cigarettes, and explained the harm reduction potential of such devices.”

JBP Associates – a public relations firm based in Bristol – lobbied Tory MSP Sandesh Gulhane in January this year on behalf of the UK Vaping Industry Association (UKVI). 

The firm said the purpose of the meeting was to discuss the recent announcement from the UK Government that e-cigarettes could become medically licensed. Its entry on the lobbying register added: “The discussion outlined the UKVIA’s broad aims of reducing misinformation regarding the relative harm of vaping, and its role as a smoking cessation aid. It was agreed UKVIA would provide follow up materials.”

Another meeting was held in April, when JBP Associates met Siobhian Brown MSP, of the SNP. The register entry for that meeting said its purpose was to discuss current smoking rates in Scotland, and introduce the work of the UK Vaping Industry Association, including in “reducing tobacco harm, preventing youth access, and tackling misinformation about the relative harm of vaping products.” 

JBP added: “The Scottish Government’s recently published consultation on tightening the restrictions on advertising and promotion of vaping products was also discussed.

“The UKVIA does not agree with the Scottish Government’s proposals, and sought the views of the MSP on the issue, in order to address concerns regarding the relative harm of vaping products, and encourage them to reopen the conversation on tobacco harm reduction approaches. 

Lobbying was also conducted by those seeking to put restrictions on vaping. ASH Scotland lobbied Labour MSP Carol Mochan in March and discussed “restricting advertisement of vaping products”.

PR
Photo Credit: iStock/diego_cervo

A Scottish Government spokesperson said: “The Scottish Government does not work with the tobacco industry over the development of public health policy. Our recent Vape consultation, which closed on 29 April 2022, included a declaration of interest precisely to ensure that we are compliant with Article 5.3 of the Framework Convention on tobacco control, which provides the Scottish Government with options for ensuring the continued protection of public health policy from undue interference from the tobacco industry.”

Last November The Ferret revealed that organisations that do not disclose their funders were running astroturf campaigns that spent over £60,000 on Facebook adverts attacking proposed anti-vaping legislation.

The target of these campaigns was COP9, a conference of parties signed up to discuss tobacco control via the World Health Organisation (WHO).

This story was co-published by the Sunday National on 5 June 2022.

Photo Credit: iStock/diego_cervo

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