A series of “grassroots” campaigns telling UK e-cigarette users they are under attack and urging them to “stand up for their rights” by opposing new vaping regulations are being run by secretive lobby groups with links to Big Tobacco.
The campaigns – pushed to millions of Facebook and Twitter users in the past few weeks – have names such as #BackVapingSaveLives and Save My Vape, and are styled to look like they are coordinated by members of the public. But in reality they are run and promoted by rightwing thinktanks and lobbyists that oppose stricter regulation and want to influence government policy.
They include a movement called We Vape UK, which claims to be run by an “independent” organisation “for vapers by vapers”, but was set up by a fellow at the Adam Smith Institute, a free market lobby group that does not disclose its funders and has long-running ties to the tobacco industry.
Posts from We Vape UK’s #BackVapingSaveLives campaign appear to glamourise vaping. They include a video of a young woman vaping on a night out, posts promoting flavoured and disposable vapes, and pictures of celebrities using e-cigarettes.
Other posts encourage people to fill out a form that sends a letter to their local MP. The prepared letter is signed with the person’s name and urges the MP to “stand up for me and the many thousands of people who vape in your constituency” by opposing policies to regulate vaping.
Two further campaigns – Say No To WHO and Save My Vape – are linked to Global Britain Ltd, an anti-EU pressure group run by Brian Monteith, a PR consultant and former Brexit party politician who is described by Bath University’s TobaccoTactics research unit as a “veteran campaigner against tobacco control”. In the past three months alone, Say No To WHO has paid for 12 ads on Facebook which have been shown to around 2.4 million people in the UK.
The ads attack the World Health Organization – which has been vocal about the health risks of e-cigarettes – and accuse it of trying to interfere in UK policy, painting it as a shady organisation controlled by nefarious global forces. One ad says: “The UK must stand up for our sovereignty, protect the right for smokers to choose less harmful alternatives and make it clear to the WHO that UK laws are decided by us.” Another says: “Who are the men in dark suits trying to control your lives? #SayNoToWho!” Others feature devils, “top secret” files and show the WHO logo on puppet strings controlled by China and Russia.
The WHO described the posts as “misinformation”. Dr Vinayak Prasad, head of its No Tobacco Unit, said the WHO’s tobacco and e-cigarette recommendations were “based on the best scientific evidence available”, which showed they were harmful to health. “The tobacco industry markets these products just as they marketed traditional tobacco products decades ago – misleading the public about the associated risks and preying on children and adolescents,” he said.
Save My Vape says in ads that it is run by “a community of ex-smokers” and encourages people to sign up to defend their rights. “We don’t believe that the government or media has no right to tell us we can’t vape [sic],” one post says.
While the link to Global Britain is mentioned on the Facebook pages for the campaigns if users decide to click through, it is not immediately clear from the ads themselves.
The fake grassroots movements – known as “astroturf” campaigns – have been described by transparency advocates and health experts as “a backdoor route into influencing opinion” and a “deliberate effort to sabotage public health policy”.
The campaigns appear to have been set up in 2021, but have ramped up their posts and ads in recent weeks amid pressure on the UK government to do more to tackle underage vaping, and ahead of the WHO COP10 summit on tobacco control in November.
Martin McKee, president of the British Medical Association and professor of European public health at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, said the campaigns appeared to be an attempt to “undermine public health” by organisations that “conceal their funding and present themselves as the voice of ordinary people”.
“The government needs to get serious about tackling these abuses and make it much easier to discover who is paying whom to damage the health of the British public,” he said.
Phil Chamberlain, deputy director of the Tobacco Control Research Group at Bath University, said the campaigns were an “opaque” attempt to shape public opinion by lobbyists whose views echoed those of the industry. “Trying to paint themselves as representing grassroots vapers is highly dubious,” he said. “It looks like a vehicle to try and undermine public health policy in this area.”
The Adam Smith Institute, We Vape UK and Global Britain did not respond to requests for comment from the Observer.
However, the Adam Smith Institute, which was recently ranked one of the least transparent thinktanks in the UK, has previously confirmed it has received donations from tobacco companies, saying in 2013 that this accounted for around 3% of its income.
More recently, it has accepted sponsorship from companies including JTI (Japan Tobacco International), which owns tobacco brands including Benson & Hedges, Camel and Amber Leaf, and is increasing its investment in e-cigarettes. JTI said it worked with a “number of thinktanks”, which it said played an “important role” in informing regulation, but did not have “any direct links” with any of the campaigns. “We do provide donations to a number of thinktanks, but we do not disclose details of our financial support,” a spokesperson said.
The Adam Smith Institute has also published papers calling for a weakening of existing regulations on e-cigarettes, including one by its fellow Mark Oates – who runs the #BackVapingSaveLives campaign – which called for a “rethink” of rules banning advertising on TV.
Global Britain’s views on vaping and tobacco regulation also appear to be aligned with industry. According to TobaccoTactics, Monteith, its director, “has always maintained strong links with rightwing thinktanks, some of which have in turn consistently opposed tobacco control policies”. He was previously a spokesperson for Forest, a pro-smoking campaign group which received funding from tobacco companies, and has written columns opposing e-cigarette regulations.
Evidence shows vaping is safer than cigarettes and most policymakers agree that adult smokers should be encouraged to switch. But experts are concerned about the use of e-cigarettes among people who have never smoked, with NHS data showing 9% of people aged 11-15 used e-cigarettes in 2021, up from 6% in 2018. Hospital admissions for under-20s with “vape-related disorders” are reported to have quadrupled since 2020.
Last week, NHS England’s chief executive, Amanda Pritchard, said the figures were “seriously concerning” and said she backed regulation to “nip this in the bud”.
Rishi Sunak has said he is “deeply concerned” by the trend and is understood to be considering measures including a ban on flavours and restrictions on packaging.