A Daily Beast story published last weekend tells the story of the worst-kept secret in vaping—that British American Tobacco is behind the World Vapers’ Alliance, a supposed grassroots vaping advocacy group.
The tobacco giant’s involvement with WVA was no secret among vaping advocates, which is probably a major reason why the organization only has 20,000 individual members, despite extensive social media efforts. What the Daily Beast story doesn’t explain is that activist vapers—particularly in the United States, United Kingdom and Europe—tend to mistrust and resent involvement in vaping issues by the tobacco industry.
That’s partly because companies like BAT’s American subsidiary Reynolds American Inc. (RAI) have gone out of their way to eliminate the competition posed by independent vaping businesses beloved by many vapers.
For example, in a 2014 comment to the FDA regarding the agency’s just-proposed Deeming Rule, RAI essentially offered the FDA a blueprint for destroying the open-system vaping industry. RAI and other Big Tobacco companies also regularly propose local and state taxes and laws that favor their products over those sold in vape shops and by online retailers.
Facebook and other social media ads were directly approved by BAT’s global head of campaigns, but employees and contractors at the affiliated firms were only allowed to contact BAT by phone to avoid a paper trail.
Clearly BAT understands that many vapers dislike the tobacco industry and that’s probably why it has taken great pains to hide its connection to WVA. Many vapers, if they were aware of the WVA connection to BAT, would steer clear of the organization (and many have). WVA’s “partner” groups are mostly from Latin American and Africa, where there is less mistrust of the tobacco industry and fewer non-corporate donations available for advocacy groups. No American advocacy group is affiliated with WVA.
The Daily Beast article is nevertheless interesting, providing fascinating detail about the connections between BAT and its partners who helped create and run WVA (less interesting is the unraveling of connections between those partners and their donors).
London-based BAT “played a central and hands-on role in orchestrating, directing, and funding” WVA, working with consulting and public relations firm Red Flag and right/libertarian think tank the Consumer Choice Center. Anonymous sources told Daily Beast reporter Roger Sollenberger that BAT “ran the show” and spent “millions” on the WVA effort.
Facebook and other social media ads were directly approved by BAT’s global head of campaigns, but employees and contractors at the affiliated firms were only allowed to contact BAT by phone to avoid a paper trail. They were discouraged from even mentioning BAT in emails about the WVA.
These groups are called astroturf because they’re the opposite of grassroots. Rather than being built from the ground up by vapers, they’re planned and created by tobacco companies and their consultants.
The Daily Beast story is essentially a retelling of a 2021 article in French newspaper Le Monde, which also described the connections between the WVA, BAT, CCC, and various right-wing/libertarian individuals and organizations. But the European story contained comically florid language (at least in translation), calling the connected groups an “elusive nebula…working to disseminate a radical right-wing ideology, hostile to government intervention, in the heart of Europe: libertarianism.”
According to Competitive Enterprise Institute senior fellow Michelle Minton, some of the Le Monde story’s authors, working for The Investigative Desk in the Netherlands, were funded by Bloomberg Philanthropies through the University of Bath (UK). A condition of the reporters’ employment was not revealing that the Bloomberg organization paid for their reporting.
That sounds familiar. Of course, astroturf and hidden agendas aren’t unique to tobacco companies. Journalism too can be shaped by unseen forces working to spread a radical authoritarian ideology, hostile to American liberty: prohibition!
Astroturf vape advocacy groups are old news
The astroturf concept is hardly new in the vaping world. Subsidiaries of Altria and Imperial Brands also created astroturf “vapers groups,” and there may have been others.
These groups are called astroturf because they’re the opposite of grassroots. Rather than being built from the ground up by vapers, they’re planned and created by tobacco companies and their consultants. They may look like the work of activist vaping consumers, but they’re not. The deceptive appearance is intended to give the tobacco company’s lobbying and advocacy agenda an air of legitimacy, but allows them to control the direction and tactics.
Tobacco companies are free, of course, to donate to legitimate consumer groups that work to defend vaping consumers (CASAA, for example, will accept money from anyone). The problem is that actual consumer organizations won’t allow tobacco industry donors like BAT to shape their agendas and plan their strategies.
Altria’s Vaper Rights group, which dates back at least to 2015, was fairly transparent as astroturf vaping groups go. It stated clearly at the bottom of the page, “Vaper Rights is operated on behalf of Nu Mark, LLC, an Altria company.” It remained in operation at least until November 2019, when Altria stopped making vapor products, shut down the Nu Mark subsidiary, and bought a stake in Juul Labs.
The Vaper Rights website encouraged vapers to sign a petition. However, the petition was not targeted at or sent to any particular government entity, but was just a tool for collecting contact information. The gathering of personal information is a common feature of astroturf groups.
Tobacco companies have created bogus “smokers rights” groups at least since the 1990s, using them as fronts to combat local indoor smoking bans and other unwelcome legislation.
The short-lived 95 Percent website, created by public relations firm Levick for Imperial Brands’ vapor subsidiary Fontem Ventures, encouraged vapers to share testimonials. Before launching the site (which is no longer visible even on the Internet Archive), the Fontem group reached out to individual vapers on Twitter, asking them to direct message the 95 Percent account for more information.
Nowhere in the return messages vapers received, or on the linked web page they were sent (which asked for—of course—contact information), was 95 Percent identified as being affiliated with Fontem/Imperial.
The 95 Percent effort fell apart quickly after an actual grassroots advocacy group, CASAA, publicly called out Fontem’s ruse and recommended vapers avoid the organization. [Disclosure: I am on the CASAA board, although I wasn’t when this event occurred in May 2016.]
Those groups were small and poorly funded compared to World Vapers’ Alliance, but the mission was the same—to trick unsuspecting vapers into lending their legitimacy and numbers (and sometimes names) to campaigns against laws and rules the tobacco companies oppose. Sometimes those laws align with vapers’ interests; sometimes not. The groups were mostly ignored by all concerned—as the WVA also has been, except by people who get a chill down their spine when they read about the Koch brothers.
Of course, astroturf strategy isn’t unique to vaping. Tobacco companies have created bogus “smokers rights” groups at least since the 1990s, using them as fronts to combat local indoor smoking bans and other unwelcome legislation. And other industries—like oil, farming, and insurance—have done the same thing.
Smokers created vaping without any help from the tobacco industry or anti-smoking crusaders, and vapers have the right to keep innovating to help themselves. My goal is to provide clear, honest information about the challenges vaping faces from lawmakers, regulators, and brokers of disinformation. I recently joined the CASAA board, but my opinions aren’t necessarily CASAA’s, and vice versa. You can find me on Twitter @whycherrywhy