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Lancet sparks agency row

Published on 15/02/13 at 09:30am
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Communications agency Luther Pendragon has parted company with cigarette firm Philip Morris after attention was drawn to the agency’s other health-related clients.

Agency managing director Simon Whale confirmed to Pharmafocus: “We don’t work for them.” Asked when the relationship with Philip Morris was terminated, he said: “I wouldn’t want to talk about client relationships.”

The imbroglio has its genesis in an open letter from various health professionals in The Lancet, which criticised healthcare organisations for retaining Luther given that the agency was working for the tobacco firm.

Luther was hired by Philip Morris, whose main brand is Marlboro in the UK, to lobby against possible government plans to force all cigarette manufacturers to sell their products in standardised plain packaging carrying prominent health warnings.

In December, Australia became the first country in the world to do this and the UK government has yet to respond to its own public consultation on the issue, which ended last August.

The Lancet letter listed organisations which it said had hired - or still employed - Luther, including the Department of Health, Royal Pharmaceutical Society, the All Party Pharmacy Group, the National Pharmacy Association and St George’s Healthcare NHS Trust.

“We…call on all healthcare organisations, and especially the UK Department of Health, to send out a clear message by severing any links they have with public relations companies that work to promote the interests of the tobacco industry,” it said. 

“They should adopt clear, ethical policies to ensure that they will not give contracts to such companies in the future.”

Luther’s decision to drop Philip Morris was welcomed by the Royal Pharmaceutical Society. “Luther Pendragon is no longer working with Philip Morris,” the society said on Twitter. “We are happy with this and with Luther’s work with us.”

“Following discussions with L.P, we are confident their work with other clients has not conflicted with their joint work with us,” it concluded.

The ABPI, which had also employed Luther, took the decision to drop the agency prior to the publication of The Lancet.

“Luther are serving their notice,” an ABPI spokesman explained to Pharmafocus. “We served notice after we found out about their tobacco client.”

The argument is based on what the letter’s signatories say is a conflict of interest between health organisations and tobacco companies.

“Public relations companies might take their own view of what they regard as ethical, but it would clearly be unacceptable for any healthcare organisation to engage with a company that is simultaneously working to oppose public health legislation,” they wrote.

Tobacco consumption is responsible for 8.8% of deaths worldwide, the letter went on.

Adam Hill

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