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Modern Marketing SXSW Public Relations

Quit Big Tobacco ramps up pressure on SXSW marketers as vaping brands gain ubiquity


By Katie Deighton | Senior Reporter

March 13, 2019 | 4 min read

A group calling on agencies to boycott big tobacco accounts has ramped up its campaigning with a presence at SXSW, where it’s clarifying the link between legacy cigarette companies and newer vaping companies.

Quit Big Tobacco invests in SXSW activation

Quit Big Tobacco invests in SXSW activation

Quit Big Tobacco, a subsidiary of public health organization Vital Strategies, headed to Austin to target marketers attending the annual innovation festival. The group is primarily targeting advertising and PR firms, but is also asking brands to pledge not to hire agencies that also work on big tobacco accounts.

About 175 companies have signed up so far, including Golin, CP+B, GSD&M and Ketchum. Quit Big Tobacco hopes the result will be less effective marketing for Big Tobacco firms, and consequently fewer smokers in the future.

“Aggressive tobacco-related marketing, including toward youth, was identified by the US surgeon general’s 2014 report as ‘the root cause of the smoking epidemic’,” said Stephen Hamill, Vital Strategies' vice-president of policy, advocacy and communication. “The tobacco industry needs aggressive marketing to replenish its customer base because cigarettes kill about half of smokers.”

On the surface, the campaign may seem unnecessary given that has been illegal to advertise cigarettes on TV and radio in the US since 1971. However, big tobacco still spends more than $1m per hour on marketing cigarettes and smokeless tobacco in the country, according to Hamill, usually via point-of-sale advertising, influencer marketing and social media campaigns that slip through legal loopholes.

“Advertising for tobacco-related products in the US especially targets youth, low-income populations and communities of color,” said Hamill.

“We’re especially concerned that the exploding epidemic of vaping among youth may erase decades of progress. Between 2017 and 2018, vaping increased by almost 80 percent among US high school students and rose by nearly half among middle school students. Forty percent of youth who vape also use another tobacco product.”

Additionally, smokeless brands such as Juul, the vaping brand that appears to have come under the heaviest fire from the anti-smoking lobby, also fund the marketing of traditional brands. Marlboro’s owner Altria injected $12.8bn into Juul last year, and a number of other vaping brands – often marketed as a less harmful alternative to cigarettes – are backed by big tobacco.

In a time of purpose-driven marketing, why wouldn’t a brand or agency sign up to Vital Strategies’ campaign? Some are wary of officially committing to the cause, Hamill’s team explained.

“Most companies haven’t worked or partnered with Big Tobacco, and don’t want to, but don’t have any formal policy in place,” said Hamill. “We show them that Quit Big Tobacco is an opportunity to demonstrate their principles to customers, and in the case of agencies, to show current and potential clients that they share those principles.

“We’re in an age when companies are increasingly judged for their values, and Quit Big Tobacco provides businesses a great opportunity to showcase that they stand for health.”

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