Global Britain’s astoturf bid to oppose major summit tackling vaping

7 November 2021

Billy Briggs and Sean Rankin.  Source: The National

ORGANISATIONS that do not disclose their funders are running astroturf campaigns that have spent more than £60,000 on Facebook adverts attacking proposed anti-vaping legislation.

The self-styled anti-authoritarian and pro-Brexit organisation Global Britain is managing two campaigns – Save My Vape and Say No To WHO – as part of its Smoke Free campaign.

It is asking people to write to MPs ahead of a World Health Organisation (WHO) conference next week that could lead to tighter regulation of the vaping industry.

Astroturf refers to apparently grassroots groups that are actually created and funded by corporations, public relations firms or groups with political interests.

The Save My Vape and Say No To WHO campaigns have prompted health experts to express concern Global Britain may have links to the tobacco industry. Global Britain says it is “helping to put pressure on the UK Government to stand against the regressive guidance of the Chinese-backed WHO”.

Almost 64,000 people die from smoking every year. About 3.6 million – or 7% – of adults in Britain, are thought to use e-cigarettes, but vaping remains a contentious issue.

Global Britain is a private organisation involved in political campaigns that says it is “committed to safeguarding the rights and interests of Britons on the international stage”. It does not disclose how it is funded though there is no law or regulation actually requiring it to do so.

One of its directors is Brian Monteith (below), a former Scottish Conservative and Brexit Party politician. The Ferret previously revealed Monteith was involved with Facebook campaigns targeting the SNP during the Scottish election campaign in May this year.

Monteith is identified by the Tobacco Tactics research unit at Bath University as “a veteran campaigner against tobacco control policies”. He was Scottish spokesperson for the tobacco advocacy group Forest in the mid-1990s.

The Save My Vape Campaign has spent £32,903 on 81 adverts since it was created in August 2021. It is encouraging Facebook users to email their MP to oppose anti-vaping legislation ahead of the forthcoming COP9 conference hosted by the WHO.

Save My Vape’s Facebook page states it is part of “Global Britain’s campaign to protect the UK’s vapers from planned restrictions and higher vaping taxes”.

The page has a link to both the Global Britain “take action” page and the Save My Vape website, which has one page about the campaign. The site has a section where users can donate money and email their MP but it does not state who is managing or funding the campaign.

The Facebook page for Say No To WHO was also created in August 2021 and has spent £31,777 on 35 adverts. The page declares itself as a “political organisation” and says it is a “campaign to protect vapers and reduced-risk smokers from the WHO’s authoritarian policies”.

This Facebook page links to the Say No To WHO website which has three blogs and a section for emailing MPs and donating money. There is no information on the site about who authored the blogs or who is responsible for running and funding the campaign.

The Ferret can also reveal that a separate campaign opposing vaping legislation is being run by an organisation in the US called Young Voices.

Young Voices is a PR firm which supports pro-liberty writers. It is an associate member of the Charles Koch Institute, an organisation run by oil billionaires questioning policies on climate change.

Young Voices has spent £3451 on adverts for its Right To Vape campaign. It was launched in August 2021 and has run four adverts at a cost of £3451. The Right To Vape website consists of three pages attacking WHO policy on vaping alongside articles by authors affiliated to Young Voices. The site has a link to a petition encouraging the British public to oppose potential UK legislation restricting vaping.

Its site says: “Politicians in the UK and around the world are looking to expand the nanny state by introducing new taxes, regulations, restrictions and bans on what consumers can and can’t do.

“More specifically, nanny statists have set their sights on vaping and other tobacco harm reduction products which provide a path to a smoke-free future. The World Health Organisation spearheads the anti-harm reduction campaign, ironically as part of its ‘Tobacco Free Initiatives’.

“The Right to Vape Project, supported by Young Voices, is pushing back against this growing lifestyle authoritarianism by calling out the WHO and those who sign up to its regressive agenda on public health policy.”

Young Voices says it offers contributors the “opportunity to take a deep-dive on issues that they’re passionate about, aided by resources and mentorship we receive from our partner organisations”. But it does not say who these partner organisations are, what resources are provided or what the nature of the mentorship they provide is.

Jason Reed is the Young Voices head of PR and UK lead. The contact email for ads run by Right To Vape is the same as that given to contact Reed on the Young Voices website. He is a former policy fellow at the Consumer Choice Centre, an organisation identified by Tobacco Tactics as accepting donations from the tobacco industry.

Young Voices’s 2021 financial report revealed a total income of $624,000 from unidentified corporations, foundations and individuals – but it does not disclose its funders.

The Ferret asked Young Voices who provides its funding, but the organisation declined to give details.

A spokesman for Young Voices said: “Young Voices fiercely defends our independence as an organisation from outside influence. Per our code of ethics, the views expressed by our writers are theirs alone and are not drafted, edited or reviewed by representatives of any corporate industry — tobacco or otherwise. Gold-standard studies cited by the NHS have shown that vaping products have been critical to helping smokers quit cigarettes.

“Simply put: vaping can save lives, and I am proud that our writers are unafraid to stand up for tobacco harm reduction.”

The target of these campaigns is COP9, a conference of parties signed up to discuss tobacco control via the World Health Organisation (WHO). Fifteen years ago, the WHO developed the Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (FCTC), to provide governments with guidelines for reducing tobacco use. Since then representatives have convened every two years to discuss ways in which the FCTC, or its implementation, might be improved.

At COP9, the FCTC plans to formulate an action plan in response to a WHO report in July 2021 on the potential harmful effects of vaping and its recommendations for tightened regulation of the vaping industry.

The head of WHO stated at the time: “Where they are not banned, governments should adopt appropriate policies to protect their populations from the harms of electronicnicotine delivery systems, and to prevent their uptake by children, adolescents and other vulnerable groups.”

Several groups expressed concern over Global Britain’s link to the tobacco industry.

Sheila Duffy, chief executive of health charity ASH Scotland, said: “Tobacco is the single most damaging consumer product on the market. It is lethal, addictive and the industry that produces and promotes it has a well-documented track record of seeking to undermine proposed public health measures that are designed to save lives.

“This interference is often covert – through paid-for groups and fake grassroots opinion, incentivised influencers and slick PR campaigns.

“Brian Monteith is a ‘well-kent face’ as a tobacco industry apologist. The tobacco industry is a wolf in sheep’s clothing. We need to guard against and expose its malign influence if we are to protect Scotland’s aim to reduce tobacco use to minimal levels across all communities in Scotland by 2034 and prevent the industry from addicting new, young consumers.”

Andrew Rowell, senior researcher with the Tobacco Control Research Group at the University of Bath, said: “It is no surprise that many of the organisations or individuals pushing an anti-WHO message in the run-up to COP9 have a history of association and financial relationships with the tobacco industry”.

He added: “The industry’s profit motive conflicts with WHO’s commitment to improve health. The focus of the COP – the WHO Framework Convention on Tobacco Control – contains measures that are proven to reduce tobacco use and commits governments to protect health policy from tobacco industry influence.

“That’s bad for Big Tobacco’s business. It’s easier to identify that conflict of interest when the industry speaks out directly, so it often operates via front groups or even front groups of those front groups to push its message. This activity may be designed to appear organic, but it’s part of a familiar playbook used by the industry and its allies.”

Shona Hilton (above), professor in public health policy at the University of Glasgow, said that due to reduced smoking rates, the traditional cigarette market has been “squeezed”, adding “it is no surprise that the tobacco industry has broadened its portfolio of products to include e-cigarettes.”

She continued: “However, as the tobacco industry merges into parts of the vaping industry, we need to be alert and make sure we regulate the vaping industry so that the gains we have made for health in tobacco regulation are not undermined in any way.”

Last month it emerged that e-cigarettes may soon be prescribed on the NHS to help smokers quit under radical plans by ministers to slash smoking rates in England. The move could see England become the first country in the world to prescribe medicinally licensed e-cigarettes.

Global Britain was asked to comment but did not respond. Commenting previously for a Ferret article about transparency over funding for political campaigns, Montieth said: “Requiring publication of the details of every donation to small magazines and cultural outlets would be a disproportionate and onerous restriction on freedom of speech – and would create huge disincentives to the crowd-funding that many people use to provide modest financial support to their favourite worthwhile causes.”