Burning Desire: from those wonderful folks who brought you lung cancer…

May 30, 2014
Holden Frith

In this revealing documentary, tobacco chiefs seem disturbingly reasonable in their pursuit of profit


Why won't cigarette companies die? Despite countless good reasons to quit the habit, the tobacco industry still sells six trillion cigarettes a year, resulting in profits of £30 billion – and five million deaths.

If airlines or supermarkets killed even a fraction of that number of their customers they would be out of business in weeks. Yet big tobacco seems to be in rude health.

Burning Desire, Peter Taylor's two-part documentary for BBC2, sets out to challenge and explain that remarkable resilience.

Taylor has spent 40 years confronting the tobacco industry, watching as it retreated from deception and denial into public silence. Now, he says, it is on the front foot again, fighting back against anti-smoking laws, expanding into the developing world and finding new, more socially acceptable ways to deliver its products.

This documentary, and British American Tobacco's willingness to contribute to it, is in itself evidence of renewed confidence. To the tobacco executives, it was an opportunity to put the PR plan into action – and, despite Taylor's dogged attempts to corner them, they will probably be pleased with the results.

The BAT executives give a masterclass in public relations jujitsu, neutralising their inquisitor with a show of studied reasonableness. They meekly acquiesce to point after point until Taylor is the one who seems unreasonable.

They concede that cigarettes cause cancer – but then, in the face of such overwhelming evidence, what choice do they have? They are happy too to condemn the actions of their predecessors, knowing that they can do so with no risk to the bottom line, and happier still to look forward to a future in which their profits come from low-risk electronic cigarettes.

But the present remains more challenging. It is clear that the policy of concession stops just before the point at which it might affect today's bottom line.

No one from BAT will accept, for example, that the company has an interest in encouraging more people to smoke. What little marketing they are allowed is, they insist, aimed purely at luring current smokers from rival brands. And they are shocked, shocked that each year 200,000 children aged 11 to 15 take up the habit.

The anti-smoking campaigners are having none of it. "They need children to start smoking to replace the smokers they lose," says one. "The more successful they are," says another, "the more people will die."

Compare those short, clear, declarative sentences with the soporific language of Kingsley Wheaton, BAT's unimpeachably reasonable corporate affairs director.

"British American Tobacco is committed to a progressive future," he says. "We are different because we are at the forefront of driving that tobacco harm-reduction future."

The precise meaning of the words might elude even the most attentive viewer, but the overall message is clear: relax, we're here to stay, and everything's going to be fine.

Part 2 of Burning Desire is on BBC2 next Thursday at 9.30pm

Holden Frith tweets at twitter.com/holdenfrith

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