Monday 18 September 2017

And now a word from our sponsor....

Part of the responsibility of civil society organizations like ours is to bear witness to important events, no matter how early in the day they take place or how luxurious the chair from which you have to bear witness.

With this duty in mind, I arrived early this morning at the posh Rideau Club in downtown Ottawa to watch iPolitics Live provide the president of Imperial Tobacco, Mr. Jorge Araya, with the opportunity to make a short speech and to be interviewed by the publisher, Mr. James Baxter.

Mr. Araya is the newish-highest ranking officer at ITL, British American Tobacco's Canadian subsidiary. He has been making the rounds at such comfortable events, including at Vancouver's Canadian Club last June and the Empire Club in Toronto next week.

This space for rent

My guess is that all of these appearances have been arranged following an exchange of money. Although there is no mention of commercial considerations in Vancouver, Toronto's do is openly billed as sponsored by Osler - the very same law firm which represents Imperial Tobacco across Canada.

A commercial basis for this morning's event was strongly hinted at half way through the hour-long webcast. Mr. Baxter prefaced his interview by announcing that the "net proceeds" of today's event would go to a program run by Carleton University's journalism program. Since the tickets were free and the use of the Rideau Club most certainly was not, it seems logical to conclude that the presence of "net proceeds" means that this was a sponsored program for which iPolitics received payment.**

This is not the first time that iPolitics has provided a forum for Imperial Tobacco to promote a liberalized-market for nicotine products.  In early 2017, ITL's regulatory spokesperson, Eric Gagnon, participated on an iPolitics Live panel, although on that last occasion other voices -- some of which disagreed with Mr. Gagnon -- were also invited to participate.

Dancing with the one that brung ya!

Today's event was clearly different. iPolitics President, Andrew Beattie, opened the event by saying how "very proud" he was that it was taking place, and how grateful for the "unique opportunity granted" by Mr. Araya's participation. It's not every broadcaster who acknowledges pride at providing airtime to a tobacco official, mind you, but it did help set the tone.

Indeed, the format of the event could not have been more favourably crafted to meet the needs of  Canada's largest tobacco company if it had been designed by Hill and Knowlton, Torchia or any of the other PR firms used by Imperial Tobacco over the years to influence health policy. 

Mr. Araya had 15 minutes of uninterrupted airtime to make his case (with slides!) after which Mr. Baxter was to interview him. The questions for the interview would be provided first by Mr. Baxter and then from a social media feed, as ranked by the Rideau Club audience among whom I sat.

The questions, it was soon revealed, were mostly being fed into the twitter feed by a member of iPolitics' staff, whose thumbs moved constantly over the screen of her mobile phone as she sat a table away from me. Very few other audience members seemed to be using their phones to rank questions, meaning that it took only a few "thumbs up" for a question to be ranked highly and then asked of Mr. Araya -- the greatest endorsement of any question was "5 thumbs up."

If it only takes 5 people to push a question to the top of a list, then the iPolitics Live audience engagement is a very easy system to game. With more than half the tables "reserved" for late-arriving guests who sat together and most of the questions submitted by iPolitics personnel, it most certainly looked like it was being gamed in Mr. Araya's favour.

ITL's pitch

Mr. Araya's message can be boiled down to something like: 'we have a new product that we want to sell, and we want government to let us be in charge of how it is marketed and priced'. This, of course, is not a new message for this industry - nor was there much that was surprising or new in what Mr. Araya said this morning.

More than a decade has now elapsed since the company's core messages shifted from denying that cigarettes are harmful to promising that they would manufacture less harmful nicotine products. The rest of his message today was older than that, fitting within the narrow message framing promoted by the industry over my lifetime:
* the tobacco industry contributes to the economy and enriches government coffers;
* any restrictions on the right to market tobacco is a step down the slippery slope that leads to a curtailment of normal corporate rights; 
* upcoming regulations (in this case plain packaging) don't work and have negative unintended consequences; 
* the real villains are those who sell illegal cigarettes.

With respect to the supposed focus of the event -- reduced risk products -- Mr. Araya gave little new insight into what his company is planning, other than to announce that they would be extending i-Glo sales to provinces outside B.C. in the coming months, and were poised to enter the vaping market once S-5 was passed.

The only comment that made my eyes pop was when Mr. Araya used Justin Trudeau to validate his position against high taxes on cigarettes. My scribbled notes record him attributing the following quote to the prime minister: "there is no black market for beer or for alcohol, but there is a black market for cigarettes and that is because of high taxes."

I don't know how I had missed that important declaration, and can only hope that the PMO has by now clarified that (a) high taxes are not the trigger for contraband tobacco and (b) the illegal alcohol market is about the same size as the illegal tobacco market, based on household expenditure.

Followed by a round of Pat-a-cake

The last half of the hour was spent in a gentle conversation between Mr. Araya and journalist James Baxter. I would expect that ITL's corporate communications team is very pleased with the result.

Mr. Baxter opened by acknowledging his family's relationship with the alcohol industry and the acknowledging that alcohol has a dark side: "Booze has killed a lot of people and ruined a lot of lives." But he neither pushed for nor seemed to expect any similar concession or acknowledgement from Mr. Araya with respect to the liability or responsibility of his company to those whose lives have been shortened or made more difficult as a result of using their products.

Only in his opening questions did Mr. Baxter, haltingly, try to set a firm tone, focusing on the challenge that Mr. Araya faces in being seen as a credible force in reducing harm to smokers. Either he is a good actor, or Mr. Baxter truly was oblivious to the irony that his interview and the iPolitics broadcast was one of the steps Mr. Araya is taking to meet that challenge.

After a short round of his own questions, Mr. Baxter soon moved to those that were provided by the ranked Twitter process. By the end of the hour, Mr. Araya had been given a platform to express his views on questions on a range of soft questions, such as:
* whether illegal cigarettes were more harmful than his own company's brands,
* whether the company was the source of the illegal cigarettes sold today,
* whether diabetes was a greater burden on the healthcare system than smoking
* what exactly was wrong with plain packaging
* whether the federal government should fund groups that lobby against smoking
* what their policy priorities were.

Could it possibly be that bad, you wonder? Don't take my word for it! I would expect this advertorial will soon be available for viewing. Watch for yourself.


** iPolitics Live declines to make public its process for deciding what stories are carried: "editorial decisions for speakers and how stories are presented remain with iPolitics". It is more open about its interest in running sponsored events: "iPoliticsLive relies on a variety of revenue streams including sponsorships to help tell the stories we present".