As countries around the world consider following Australia’s lead by introducing plain packaging on cigarettes, the tobacco industry is determined that this attack on its marketing does not spread.
With their backs to the wall amid increasingly tough regulations, as well as the looming threat of having to remove all branding from cigarette packets, tobacco companies need all the allies they can find. Who better to ask than the UK's 10 million smokers themselves?
In a new stealth marketing campaign launched with the aid of a major lobbying firm which has waged similar offensives for rightwing causes in the US, the makers of Marlboro cigarettes are seeking to mobilise a grassroots fightback by customers against moves towards the introduction of blank packaging.
Buyers of Marlboro cigarettes have been finding messages inside their packets inviting them to visit a new campaigning website, Know-more.co.uk, which describes itself as "the community for Britain's smokers".
Philip Morris, which also makes brands including Chesterfield and Virginia for the UK market, is running three different inserts in packets highlighting tough policies that aim to hit a nerve with smokers – tax, the possibility of banning smoking in cars and homes, and how plain packaging might fuel the black market trade in cigarettes.
One insert reads: "Plain packaging is the latest in a stream of proposals targeting smokers. Other excessive schemes have been suggested. Know-more by learning the issues, then say no more to the government by joining our community and speaking out."
The bottom left-hand corner of the website states that it is sponsored by Philip Morris Ltd.
A background check reveals that the site is registered to Democracy Data & Communications (DDC) Advocacy, a major US lobbying firm which has become a specialist in so-called stealth lobbying involving the setting up of "astroturf" websites and organisations to front campaigns that advocate for vested interests.
Its previous campaigns have included the establishment of a supposedly grassroots group called Citizens for a Safe Alexandria to attack moves by the Obama administration to prosecute Guantánamo Bay prisoners in the US state of Virginia. Others have been mounted on behalf of US private healthcare giants and in support of moves by George W Bush to privatise social security.
DDC's founder, chairman and CEO is BR McConnon, a former employee at Citizens for a Sound Economy, an anti-regulation conservative political group whose offshoots have been reported to be guiding forces in the establishment of the Tea Party movement.
The Philip Morris campaign, which will run for the best part of a month, indicates that the tobacco lobby fears the impact of plain packaging on cigarette sales.
Although proposals to introduce such a measure were dropped in the Queen's speech because of unease in Downing Street and Conservative fears of the "nanny state" label, the Liberal Democrat health minister Norman Lamb last month urged the coalition to press ahead.
A spokesman for Philip Morris said: "Adult smokers and tobacco retailers in the UK face some of the strictest tobacco control regulations and pay some of the highest cigarette taxes in Europe, but typically they do not know about these policies until after they have been enacted.
"Consumers and retailers tell us that they would appreciate receiving information about public policies and government proposals that directly impact them, so we launched the Know-More website to do exactly that.
"The website focuses on issues that affect retailers and adult smokers currently and potentially in the future."
However, anti-smoking campaigners say the emergence of such campaigns demonstrates the degree of distrust of tobacco companies.
Martin Dockrell, director of policy at Action on Smoking and Health (Ash), said: "The industry faces the same old problem that they just can't solve – who will they find to speak for an industry that kills half its users?
"This is the latest attempt to get smokers to do the work for them. This time they seem intent on keeping tight control of the messaging.
"The industry dilemma is this: they hope to achieve more credibility by using organisations that look independent, but the more independent the spokesman, the less the tobacco companies are in control. This time they are mimicking online campaign sites like 38 Degrees, recruiting smokers as 'netizens', but retaining maximum control over the content."
Philip Morris is the fourth biggest tobacco company in the UK, selling about 7% of the 4.4bn cigarettes sold each year, which means the inserts will run in potentially as many as 1.5m packets over the course of the campaign to raise awareness among its customers.
Philip Morris is not running the campaign in conjunction with the other "big four" tobacco companies – Japan Tobacco International (JTI), Imperial Tobacco and British American Tobacco – and is not a member of the trade body the Tobacco Manufacturers' Association.
The tobacco industry has been stepping up lobbying efforts against proposed government regulations in recent months.
The JTI UK subsidiary Gallaher, which markets brands including Benson & Hedges, Silk Cut and Camel, has run a series of ads in national newspapers attacking government policy.
The ads hit out against anti-tobacco groups as well as plans for proposals including the introduction of plain packaging.
Groups including Ash and Cancer Research complained to the advertising watchdog that the content of the ads contained inaccuracies. The Advertising Standards Authority banned three ads for being misleading.
guardian.co.uk © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010