Smokers’ rights groups
To create an impression of spontaneous, grassroots public support.
Astroturfing is the term used for the faking of a grassroots movement, when in reality the agenda and strategy is controlled by a hidden company or organisation. In that sense, it is one of the typical Third Party Techniques - a very specific use of Front Groups, consisting of individuals pretending to be voicing their own opinions on their own initiative, mimicking genuine activist groups.
Fake Grassroots in the 1990s
One of the world's leading PR companies Burson-Marsteller has a long involvement with the tobacco industry. In 1992, the PR company set up a unit specialised in grassroots lobbying called the Advocacy Communications Team. The following year, in 1993, this team created the National Smokers Alliance on behalf of Philip Morris. The tobacco money allowed this "grassroots" alliance to use full-page advertisements, direct telemarketing and other high-tech campaign strategies to build its membership to a claimed 300,000 by 1995.
There was also an overlap of staff: The Alliance's president was the vice president of Burson-Marsteller, and other Burson-Marsteller executives were actively involved in the organisation. However, the names of the NSA's corporate funders and organisers were kept off the group's materials, according to PR Watch.
Just like a real grassroots group, the National Smokers Alliance had a folksy but strident newsletter for its membership, called The NSA Voice to disseminate the pro-smoking message. According to its June 1994 issue, the NSA was paying hundreds of young activists, mostly unemployed college students, to sign up NSA members in bars and bowling alleys in Washington, Atlanta, Austin, Baltimore, Chicago, Cleveland, New York Seattle and other cities.
One NSA mailing, sent first class to hundreds of thousands of smokers, urged that letters be sent to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) to defeat new regulations that would "BAN SMOKING IN ANY SITE WHERE WORK IS CONDUCTED" (capitalization in the original).
Burson-Marsteller's team developed a PR strategy whereby anti-smokers were called "anti Americans." NSA's newsletter advised, "If 'Anti' America is pushing a discriminatory smoking ban in your workplace, speak up," and "check the laws in your state with regard to the protection of individual rights".
This strategy from the 1990s resonates in the freedom of speech argument against pictorial warnings on cigarette packets in the United States today, and the idea that the freedom to smoke is a civil liberty. (also pages on Forest and on Privacy International).
Fake Grassroots Activities in the 21st Century
United States: JUUL Labs’ “Switch Network”
JUUL Labs is a San Francisco based e-cigarette company that is 35% owned by tobacco giant Altria. In 2019, the company launched a website which urged JUUL consumers to “advocate for responsible policies” (see Image 1). Visitors to the site were encouraged to sign petitions, engage with elected officials and testify at state or local hearings, to “…protect your vapor access”. Visitors to the site were actively recruited to the campaign. According to ‘’CNBC News’’, public affairs company Locust Street called and emailed JUUL consumers on behalf of the e-cigarette company, asking them to sign up to the website. At the time, JUUL Labs was fighting a proposed e-cigarette sales ban in its home city San Francisco, and there were several calls at local and national level to ban flavoured e-cigarettes.
Europe: Citizens' Initiative ‘Let's Demand Smarter Vaping Regulation’
In February 2019, a group of citizens – including Valerio Forconi, Head of European Union (EU) Corporate Affairs and registered lobbyist for Imperial Tobacco - launched a campaign under the “European Citizens’ Initiative” with the name “Let's demand smarter vaping regulation!”. This campaign advocated the removal of article 20 of EU Tobacco Products Directive 2014/40/EU, which “requires EU Member States to introduce restrictions on the advertising of electronic cigarettes”.
The European Citizens’ Initiative is a democratic tool meant to benefit individuals, or groups of individuals, by bringing to the European Commission’s attention proposals for new laws. While there are rules in place which prohibit companies or organisations from using this process, there are no specific rules against tobacco company employees doing so as individuals. Although the campaign appeared to have been set up by a group of individuals, Imperial Tobacco paid €10,000 towards the campaign. Imperial has a significant stake in the e-cigarette business. For more information visit the page on Imperial’s subsidiary Fontem Ventures.
In April 2019 a website followed, “promoted by” Imperial Tobacco, to support the European Citizens’ Initiative on vaping, and "...make it easier for European smokers to switch to e-vapour products by eliminating some of the most restructure tobacco-style regulation…”.
- Also see Instinctif Partners, the public relations company that helped Imperial Tobacco set up this apparent grassroot campaign.
Australia: Alliance of Australian Retailers
In August 2010, in a textbook example of astroturfing, a group called the Alliance of Australian Retailers (AAR) launched a media campaign against Australia's proposed plain packs law. The AAR claimed to represent “the owners of your local corner stores, milk bars, newsagents and service stations” and wanted to “make the voices of small retailers heard, and to oppose plain packaging until it is overturned”.  However, leaked documents revealed that this was not a genuine grassroots campaign - on the contrary, it received funding from:
Furthermore, Chris Argent of Philip Morris had regular input into the running of the AAR. Health groups launched an awareness-raising campaign under the banner “Guess who’s pulling the strings?”, as shown in the picture to the right. The AAR's astroturf campaign split retailers, with major supermarkets Coles and Woolworths repudiating the campaign and the Australian Association of Convenience Stores withdrawing from it.
For more detail, see the page on the Alliance of Australian Retailers.
- J.C. Stauber, Smokers' Hacks: the Tobacco Lobby's PR Front Groups, PR Watch, 1994, volume 1, number 1, Third Quarter, accessed March 2012
- JUUL Labs, Support the Mission to End Cigarettes, 2019, accessed October 2019
- A. LaVito, Juul hires ‘political dark arts’ firm led by ex-Clinton campaign director in its fight for survival, ‘’CNBC News’’, 1 October 2019, accessed October 2019
- K. Cai, Juul Shells Out $3 Million As San Francisco Vaping Ban Battle Intensifies Forbes, 6 August 2019, accessed September 2019
- V. Bekiempis, New York moves to ban sale of flavoured e-cigarettes amid health concerns, The Guardian, 15 September 2019, accessed October 2019
- European Commission, EU Commission Citizens' Initiative, 20 February 2019, accessed April 2019
- European Commission, Directive 2014/40/EU of the European Parliament and of the Council of 3 April 2014 on the approximation of the laws, regulations and administrative provisions of the Member States concerning the manufacture, presentation and sale of tobacco and related products, 2014, accessed May 2019
- K. Jennings, Big Tobacco’s push for Big Vape,"Politico", 26 February 2019, accessed April 2019
- Vaping Initiative, Vaping is not tobacco, undated, accessed October 2019
- Alliance of Australian Retailers, Latest News, AAR website, archived 21 August 2010, accessed October 2019
- "Leaks reveal Big Tobacco’s $5M blitz", The Age, 11 September 2010, accessed October 2019
- ASH Australia, Countering Tobacco Tactics. A guide to identifying, monitoring and preventing tobacco industry interference in public health, website Alliantie Nederland Rookvrij, 2010, accessed October 2019