Diplomats Lobbying for Tobacco Companies

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Research shows that diplomats have been lobbying on behalf of tobacco companies for many years, and that this is part of a broader industry strategy to undermine public health and further the commercial objectives of tobacco companies.1

There have been multiple instances of lobbying by ambassadors and other diplomats from the UK, as well as Japan and Switzerland. Much of this lobbying activity has taken place in low and middle-income countries (LMICs).2 These countries are important sources of new customers for tobacco companies as markets in higher income countries where consumption is generally falling.345

Diplomats are also involved in activities which help promote the tobacco industry via local media, such as visiting tobacco farms or factories. Other engagement supports tobacco companies’ product promotions, or corporate social responsibility strategy. These activities help to raise the profile of tobacco companies, enhance their reputations, and support the ‘normalisation’ of the industry.167


Parties to the World Health Organization (WHO) Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (FCTC) have an obligation to protect public health policies from the “commercial and vested interests of the tobacco industry” and any contact with tobacco industry representatives, or others seeking to further their interests, must be “limited” and “transparent”.8 The implementation guidelines to Article 5.3 of the WHO FCTC recommend that Parties limit interactions with the tobacco industry to those that are absolutely necessary to regulating the industry, and ensure the transparency of those interactions that do occur.8  The guidelines also recommend parties treat state-owned tobacco companies in the same way as any other tobacco company, including avoiding any “preferential treatment”.8

In addition, the guidelines state that “… Whenever possible, interactions should be conducted in public, for example through public hearings, public notice of interactions, disclosure of records of such interactions to the public”.8

However even in countries with a high level of compliance with the WHO FCTC requirements, diplomatic missions rarely achieve this level of transparency. Information on tobacco industry engagement has largely been found through media investigations and Freedom of Information requests (FOIs).

In October 2014, the 6th Conference of the Parties (COP) decided to urge parties: “to raise awareness and adopt measures to implement Article 5.3 and its implementing Guidelines among all parts of government including diplomatic missions.”9 Another decision required governments to “take into account their public health objectives in their negotiation of trade and investment agreements”.10

Nevertheless, diplomats continue to lobby for tobacco companies around the world.1

Countries whose diplomatic representatives have lobbied on behalf of tobacco companies overseas  include the UK, Germany and Japan, who are all Parties to the WHO FCTC,11 as well as the United States and Switzerland. BAT, PMI and Japan Tobacco all have offices in Geneva, Switzerland, the location of the World Health Organization and other key international bodies.


There are specific guidelines covering the engagement of British (UK) officials working overseas designed to limit contact with tobacco companies, and support compliance with Article 5.3. After the UK Ambassador to Panama lobbied on behalf of British American Tobacco (BAT),12 the guidelines were revised in 2013.13 These guidelines state that “Posts must not…Engage with local foreign governments on behalf of the tobacco industry, except in cases where local policies could be considered protectionist or discriminatory”.13

Engagement and lobbying

Despite having guidelines in place to support compliance with the WHO FCTC, FOI requests and media investigations have revealed that British diplomats continue to interact with the tobacco industry more than is necessary. UK diplomats have lobbied for BAT in Bangladesh,1415 Hungary,16 and Pakistan.1217181920

UK officials have also disclosed contact with tobacco companies in Panama and Venezuela,2122 Laos,23 Cuba,24 and Burundi.25

In 2018, UK advocacy organisation Action on Smoking & Health (ASH) called this a “global pattern of engagement” by British officials to defend BAT’s interests.26

Tobacco industry events

UK government guidelines state that staff must not:

“Attend or otherwise support receptions or high-profile events, especially those where a tobacco company is the sole or main sponsor and/or which are overtly to promote tobacco products or the tobacco industry (such as the official opening of a UK tobacco factory overseas)”.13

However, UK staff have attended such events, generating considerable local media coverage.

For example, in 2019 the British ambassador to Yemen opened a cigarette factory in a free trade zone in Jordan, celebrating the expansion of the tobacco company Kamaran which is part-owned by BAT.1272829

In 2020, staff from the UK high commission in Pakistan attended a promotional event for a BAT product in Pakistan.30

  • See UK Diplomats Lobbying for BAT for details.

Engaging with industry allies

The links between diplomatic missions and tobacco companies can be more indirect, via funding third party allies of the industry. The UK guidelines state that diplomats should not “endorse projects which are funded directly or indirectly by the tobacco industry”.  However, a 2019 investigation by The Guardian found that the British high commission in Malaysia had given funding to a Kuala Lumpur based think tank (IDEAS) for several years. At the same time the think tank was also receiving money from tobacco companies and was lobbying against plain packaging regulation and tobacco taxes.31  While the UK had already implemented plain packaging regulations, tobacco control was being undermined overseas.

Attending meetings with the tobacco industry

Tobacco companies attend meetings and events organised directly by UK government departments, such as the FCO (now FCDO) or the DIT (now Department for Business and Trade).21  They also attend those held by regional, national or local business organisations such as chambers of commerce.

Responses to FOI requests show that when the attendance of UK government officials at such events is disclosed, there is little detail about the specific purpose or content of these meetings,1416 It may simply be described as relating to ‘doing business’ in the country.22

Business vs public health interests?

The UK guidelines for overseas staff (last updated in 2013) allow for the communication of “basic trade, investment and political information”, although this is not defined.13 One of the activities used to justify interaction by UK diplomats is “resolving business problems that are potentially discriminatory”.1214163233 This has been criticised as running counter to the WHO FCTC guidelines.134

While transparency is required for tobacco industry interactions in 2018, the UK government told Parliament that it “does not catalogue the representations it makes on behalf of companies”.353637  Research by the Tobacco Control Research Group (TCRG) concluded that the stated WHO FCTC goal of “maximum transparency” is not being achieved in the UK.129


In 2021, the Ambassador of Japan to Bangladesh lobbied the government of Bangladesh on behalf of Japan Tobacco International (JTI).  In a letter to the Bangladesh Finance Minister the Ambassador criticised 2019 taxation changes for their impact on JTI. It also complained about the activities of competitors, and licensing demands.38

  • For details, including the lobbying letter, see Japanese Diplomats Lobbying for JTI

The Japanese Ambassador to Ethiopia was present at the signing of a deal between the Ethiopian government and JTI in 2016,  when the Ministry of Public Enterprise sold 40% of its National Tobacco Enterprise to the Japanese company.39 Japanese diplomats have also toured tobacco farms and JTI factories in Tanzania and Zambia.4041

Japan Tobacco International is the overseas subsidiary of Japan Tobacco (JT), which is one third-owned by the Japanese government.42


In May 2022, the German ambassador to Beirut visited the offices of Regie, the Lebanese Tobacco and Tobacco Inventory Administration.143


The Imani Centre for Policy and Education, a Ghana-based think tank,  received money from the Danish embassy while lobbying against tobacco control.3144


Switzerland is not Party to the WHO FCTC.

In 2019, Swiss diplomats approached the government of the Republic of Moldova on behalf of Philip Morris International (PMI) seeking an opportunity to discuss new tobacco legislation.454647  The proposed legislation included significant tax increases on heated tobacco products, in which PMI has invested.4548

The same year, PMI helped fund an inaugural event for the new Swiss Embassy in Moscow.4950


Although the US is not Party to the WHO FCTC, it has specific laws and guidance that prohibit its diplomats from promoting the sale or export of tobacco, or influencing non-discriminatory restrictions on tobacco marketing.51525354 However, US diplomats have enabled meetings between tobacco companies and government representatives.

The US ASEAN Business Council organises delegations of US businesses, including Philip Morris International (PMI), which meet high level officials in the ASEAN region.51  PMI was at the time a vice chair of its Customs & Trade Facilitation Committee and used this opportunity to meet with government officials from the Ministry of Industry and Trade of Vietnam.5155

Why it matters

The examples above illustrate contraventions of the WHO FCTC, an international treaty, and in many cases breaches of national guidelines. As TCRG research points out, all of these activities also undermine the spirit of these laws, by apparently serving the commercial interests of transnational tobacco companies and helping to ‘normalise’ the industry in the eyes of policy makers and the public.1

The implementation guidelines of Article 5.3 urge Parties to exclude the tobacco industry completely from the public health policy arena.  The guidelines also urge them not to participate in corporate social responsibility (CSR) activities which are used by the tobacco industry and as an alternative means to access policy makers, as well as for public relations and product promotion.1

In August 2019, in direct response to the exposure of lobbying by Swiss diplomats, the WHO released a statement urging governments to comply with Article 5.3 and to “proactively aspire to reduce the number of people starting and continuing smoking, to promote health and preserve future generations”.56

TobaccoTactics Resources

TCRG Research

A “willingness to be orchestrated”: Why are UK diplomats working with tobacco companies?, R. Alebshehy, K. Silver, P. Chamberlain, Frontiers in Public Health, 17 March 2023, Sec. Public Health Policy, Volume 11 – 2023, doi: 10.3389/fpubh.2023.977713

For a comprehensive list of all TCRG publications, including TCRG research that evaluates the impact of public health policy, go to the Bath TCRG’s list of publications.

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