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Where there’s smoke, there’s sugar

astroturfing

If there’s one thing Dirty Politics has made clear, it’s that astroturfing (masking who’s really behind the message) is alive and well in New Zealand. Keith Ng reports.

Dave Bryans, President of the Ontario Convenience Stores Association and a former RJ Reynolds executive, introduced himself as a loser at the New Zealand Association of Convenience Stores (NZACS) conference in November 2009.

“They flew me all the way over here to talk about loss.” They “lost the battle” against anti-smoking legislation in Canada and now serve as a cautionary tale for retailers around the world. “We didn’t stand together, and it’s very important that you now learn from that ... This isn’t just about tobacco. This is about the issues we’re going to face from here on in together.”

Though the speech mainly argued against legislative efforts to de-normalise smoking, Bryans described those efforts as the “thin end of the wedge” and said obesity and alcohol will be the future battlegrounds. He urged those at the conference to stand together. “We can’t let advocacy health groups take that away from us and change small business forever ... Don’t fool yourselves ... [they] will bulldoze your stores to win the battle.”

Five months later, a new group was formed: the Association of Community Retailers (ACR). It described itself as a “grassroots organisation” representing the interests of “small, independent family-run retail outlets”, but it was actually run by Glenn Inwood, a Wellington lobbyist who represented Imperial Tobacco as well as the Japanese whaling industry. Most interestingly, ACR used to be called Stay Displays, which was focused on fighting tobacco display laws. Stay Displays was rebranded as the ACR and, in the process, broadened its focus to confectionery and alcohol.

While Imperial’s involvement was acknowledged at a Select Committee hearing, questions remained over why a group funded by Imperial would put its efforts into confectionary and alcohol. Was it just to serve as a smokescreen for the tobacco work? Was Imperial Tobacco trying to broaden the front? Or were there other backers behind the ACR?

My investigation has focused on two groups. The first is the NZACS (where Bryans spoke five months earlier), which was represented by lobbyist, former British American Tobacco (BAT) executive and now Dirty Politics star Carrick Graham. It used Inwood’s press release service alongside the ACR and a small number of other companies – most of which were Inwood’s clients. NZACS’s “premium membership” includes BAT and Imperial Tobacco as well as a range of confectionery brands.

The other group was Foodstuffs. In July 2010, a letter was sent to convenience store owners around New Zealand urging them join the ACR. That letter was sent by Warren Myers, a manager at Toops Wholesale, on behalf of Gilmours, Toops and Trents (all three are wholesale suppliers, all three are subsidiaries of Foodstuffs). It carried their logos alongside the ACR’s and was published on the ACR website.

The ACR ceased to operate in 2011, and it’s unlikely we’ll ever find out any more about how and why that came to be or who else was behind it. But Bryans’ speech to the NZACS and the formation of the ACR provides context critical to how we understand Dirty Politics.

As obesity became the key battleground for public health, the tobacco and sugar industries became increasingly close allies. They share the same interests as fastmoving consumer goods and share distribution channels such as convenience stores. Organisations like the NZACS and Katherine Rich’s Food and Grocery Council provided opportunities for coordination (Imperial and BAT are members of both).

Graham acted as a spokesman for NZACS as recently as April 2014, and emails from Dirty Politics show that he ordered “hits” from Whaleoil blogger Cameron Slater on behalf of “KR”, against people speaking out against Frucor, Coke and Fonterra (all of whom are members of the Food and Grocery Council). People like Graham provide the tobacco playbook as well as a wealth of political connections. But those political networks have grown. Katherine Rich, a former National minister, now sits on the board of the Health Promotion Agency, overseeing the very activities she seeks to undermine, and in Parliament, we have the previous Corporate Affairs Manager for Philip Morris Todd Barclay, as well as his immediate predecessor at Philip Morris, Chris Bishop.

It’s clear that Big Sugar is the new Big Tobacco in the sense that it is the main target of public health and it has a great deal to lose. It’s also clear Big Sugar has stepped up to use the tools of, and work alongside, Big Tobacco. But the problem goes beyond that. By adopting Big Tobacco’s tools to fight anti-obesity measures, those tools – along with the political networks and media platforms built around them – have become commoditised, applicable to anyone for any purpose.

Astroturfing groups who speak for Big Tobacco’s agenda can just as easily be retooled to fight obesity measures. Character assassination methods and platforms used against anti-tobacco campaigners could be turned against anti-alcohol campaigners or competing cleaning companies. FUD (Fear, Uncertainty, Doubt) campaigns, once used in the second-hand smoke battle, can be turned against folic acid.

These tactics share the common goal of turning every fight into brutal street-bystreet combat. If you have experimental evidence, they’ll say you have no empirical proof. If you have empirical proof, they’ll say it’s not applicable to New Zealand. If you got it from New Zealand, they’ll say it was never about evidence, it has always been a matter of principle. And that’s just for something utterly benign like folic acid.

We need new ways of fighting these forces. We cannot fight fire with fire. The fire in this case is confusion about the facts and sowing mistrust in those who participate in the public discourse. But we must recognise that they don’t participate in debate with honest intent. They are just there to run interference to delay, obfuscate and confuse, and no amount of evidence or reason will satisfy them.

Their power comes from predictability. In particular, I mean the predictability of the media to jump on controversy, to struggle with scientific concepts, to tend towards false balance. But they are also predictable. The tobacco playbook is well worn from decades of use, and Dirty Politics has given us an unprecedented opportunity to fill in the blanks. It’s up to us to understand how they try to retard the public discourse, to anticipate and head off their attempts to confuse and obfuscate.

Keith Ng is a Wellington-based data journalist.

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