While Big Tobacco has never denied it supports the newly-formed Alliance of Australian Retailers, which was set up in August to fight the government's plans, leaked internal documents suggest cigarette companies were involved in designing the campaign from the very beginning.
ABC's Lateline has obtained internal emails, invoices and contracts that reveal Big Tobacco hired a PR firm which told them to launch a campaign hidden under a third party like a retailers association.
Less than three months later, the Alliance of Australian Retailers was formed the same day it received over $5 million from the three biggest tobacco giants.
Professor Mike Daube of the Council on Smoking and Health says the documents are the most damaging Big Tobacco leaks in Australian history.
"What this tells us is that, far from being the innocent retailers campaign that it pretends to be, this is a campaign that has been developed, masterminded and run to the finest detail by the Philip Morris company ... in association with British American Tobacco and Imperial," he told the program on Friday.
A world-first in cigarette packaging
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In May, months before the Alliance of Australian Retailers existed, Philip Morris contacted Melbourne public relations firm The Civic Group for advice on how to fight the government's plan, the ABC says.
"We envision the election being a major decision point and would like to clearly understand all costs from now until election day," Chris Argent, Philip Morris' corporate affairs manager, said in one of the documents obtained by Lateline.
"Please note that contrary to the proposal, the coalition's `resolve' is not `strong'. It is at best neutral."
The Civic Group then told Philip Morris to launch an aggressive and intense campaign that builds "concern among the targeted decision makers that the campaign will not cease, it is likely to increase and that it will extract a political cost".
The PR firm's proposal recommended using third parties like retail groups to sell the message, the documents say.
Alliance of Australian Retailers formed
The Alliance of Australian Retailers was then formed in August, purporting to represent thousands of corner stores and shopkeepers.
On the day the alliance was formed, documents say it received funding from:
- Imperial Tobacco Australia: $1,080,860.
- British American Tobacco: $2,200,000.
- Philip Morris: $2,161,720.
Philip Morris also paid The Civic Group a $200,000 a month retainer to help manage the alliance, according to the documents.
Lateline says it confirmed the documents are authentic by cross-referencing multiple facts contained in them.
The program also spoke off-camera with Brett Miller, one of the owners of The Civic Group, and he did not deny the documents are genuine.
A Philip Morris statement said it's disappointed the documents appear to have been obtained by illegitimate means.
British American Tobacco says it continues to proudly support the alliance.
Further documents obtained by the ABC say a second phase of the campaign is a proposed $3.9 million campaign blitz this weekend.