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, , 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 Guant namo 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.

Why marlboro country ends at the border – the globe and mail

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Since Philip Morris cannot use the Marlboro name in Canada, its cigarette packages look almost like Marlboro knockoffs. They use the same white background with the rooftop design (most famously in red, but also in gold, silver and green), the come to where the flavour is slogan, and even the same font on the name all design elements that it does have the right to use in Canada. But it has to use the brand names Matador or Maverick. The current problem began in 2006, when the company put out a new package court documents call it the world s first no name brand of cigarette. It used the same design, but with no brand name just a descriptor, world famous imported blend, on the side of the package.

Imperial Tobacco, Canada s Marlboro maker, cried foul. Imperial s packs use the brand name, but the design is very different from the other Marlboro, and includes a maple leaf and the word Canadian. The problem is the global brand s creep into this country Canadians are familiar with the other Marlboro through travels abroad and through exposure to U.S. advertising. The question in the court case, which recently reached the Federal Court of Appeals, was this Without the Matador or Maverick label distinguishing it from Marlboro here, did the no name version create confusion? In late June, the justice ruled that it did.

The case is complicated by the fact that Canada is a dark market for cigarettes that is, except for some specialty shops, cigarettes are not displayed openly. Customers cannot point out their selection they have to ask for a product by name. Surveys submitted as evidence in this case showed that many customers were asking for the no name product using the Marlboro name, and many retailers also refer to them as Marlboro.

Federal Court of Appeal Madam Justice Johanne Gauthier determined that even though the rooftop did not use the Marlboro name, the associations that the package created in customers minds caused confusion, and therefore infringed on Imperial s Marlboro trademark. Ms. Gauthier granted an injunction preventing Rothmans Benson & Hedges Inc. (the Canadian affiliate of Philip Morris International) from selling its cigarettes in the no name package.

This is a case that acknowledges the non verbal elements of brand association, said Beth Macdonald, a counsel with McCarthy T trault in Vancouver who specializes in intellectual property and trademark law.

It s not enough that the packs do not have any literal resemblance The ruling determines that a package can infringe on a trademark simply by suggesting an idea.

Ms. Macdonald believes this case has wider significance It opens the door for other marketers to challenge the widespread practice of copycat packaging.

Examples abound Germany based discount grocery store chain Aldi sells the Protane brand of shampoo and conditioner in bottles similar to the well known Pantene brand. Vaseline lotion is another product frequently seen on shelves beside similar looking bottles for generic brand lotion. Nor is it limited to generic or store brands In 2010, Coca Cola Co. filed a trademark lawsuit in the U.S. against rival Pepsico Inc., claiming the design of the packaging for its Trop50 fruit juices copied the shape, style and large green caps of its Simply juice brand. They settled last year.

Creating confusion with a more well known product can be highly valuable for a competitor, said Chun Qiu, a marketing professor at McGill University, who focuses on the subject. At most, a consumer will be misled into buying the copycat product once, but that s all a generic brand needs.

An important value of copycat packaging is to induce product trial, Prof. Qiu said. The consumer will try the cheaper brand, and if it is close enough in performance to the name brand, the hope is that they ll choose the lower cost version on purpose next time.

The tobacco trademark case gives brand owners a way to push back, and create more caution in the minds of generic brands, Ms. Macdonald said. The courts will now be able to look at the ideas suggested, and not just the literal ideas, but the intangible associations consumers may have.

That is, if the current decision stands. Ms. Macdonald said she would be shocked if Rothmans Benson & Hedges do not request leave to appeal. Chris Koddermann, the company s director of corporate affairs, said it is reviewing its legal options. (Imperial did not respond to a request for comment.) For now, it is complying. Last week it relaunched its no name cigarette in packages that now include the brand name Rooftop.

But while the case may hold some hope for other brands, the confusion surrounding the Marlboro brand in Canada may not be so easily resolved. When clerks in two gas stations in downtown Toronto last week were asked for Marlboros, they each reached behind the counter and pulled out the freshly redesigned packs, their name clearly displayed Rooftop.

In Canada Imperial Tobacco Canada Ltd. sells Marlboro. It is not the same cigarette as those sold under the famous name elsewhere, and the packaging looks completely different.

In the U.S. and internationally Altria Group sells Marlboro through Philip Morris USA. This is the Marlboro most people think of, in the white package with the red rooftop design. Philip Morris International sells Marlboro everywhere else in the world where the brand is available, with similar packaging and logo as the brand sold in the U.S. Despite the similarities in name, they re not the same company Altria spun off PMI in 2008.