Tobacco Industry Interference with Endgame Policies

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Background

The World Health Organisation (WHO) Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (FCTC) is an international treaty that aims to reduce the demand and supply of tobacco. It entered into force in February 2005, and as of 2023, there are 183 Parties to the treaty.1

Article 3 of the WHO FCTC establishes that “the objective of this Convention and its protocols is to protect present and future generations from the devastating health, social, environmental and economic consequences of tobacco consumption and exposure to tobacco smoke by providing a framework for tobacco control measures to be implemented by the Parties at the national, regional and international levels in order to reduce continually and substantially the prevalence of tobacco use and exposure to tobacco smoke”.2

What is the endgame?

The tobacco ‘endgame’ is the concept of moving beyond a focus on tobacco control, towards implementing policies and strategies that could phase out tobacco products entirely.3 According to Cancer Research UK, among others, this would require systemic changes, including:

initiatives designed to change/eliminate permanently the structural, political and social dynamics that sustain the tobacco epidemic, in order to achieve within a specific time an endpoint for the tobacco epidemic.” 45

This could involve the reduction of prevalence of smoking to – or very close to – zero.

Policy Options

Research conducted into potential endgame strategies has identified plausible new policies for reducing smoking to minimal levels. These include:

  • A tobacco-free generation policy, which precludes the sale and supply of tobacco to individuals born after a certain year67
  • A ‘sinking-lid’ strategy, which involves establishing steadily decreasing quotas on the sales or imports of tobacco products678
  • Substantially reducing the number of tobacco product retailers, which could include restricting retailer density, location, type, or licensing, or restricting tobacco sales to government run outlets67910
  • Mandating low-nicotine levels in tobacco products611
  • Banning the sale of one or more tobacco products106

Implementation of endgame policies

National goals and policies

The first countries to propose tobacco endgame goals, and start developing legislation to achieve these targets, were Finland,1213 New Zealand,14 Ireland,15 Scotland,16 Sweden17 Canada,1819 and Malaysia.20 Other countries that have more recently adopted endgame goals include the Netherlands,2122 Australia,23 and the UK.24  Typically, the goal is to have a smoking prevalence of less than 5% of the population.

As of 2023, the Campaign for Tobacco Free Kids (CTFK) policy database shows that 13 countries have banned the sale of waterpipe tobacco products, and 19 countries have banned the sale of smokeless tobacco products.25 A review carried out in 2020 showed that 40 countries had active or pending flavoured tobacco product policies that ranged from banning flavoured tobacco, to banning flavour descriptors and images on packaging.1026 No countries have yet implemented mandatory denicotinisation, substantial retailer reductions or the sinking lid strategy at a national level.

In 2010, Bhutan was the first country to ban the sale, manufacture and distribution of tobacco products.27 However, the legislation was reversed in 2021 due to concerns that increased tobacco smuggling could result in cross-border transmission of COVID-19.27

Subnational policies

Several US cities have also implemented endgame strategies. Brookline, Massachusetts introduced a generational tobacco ban in 2021 which prohibited the sale of tobacco products and e-cigarettes to anyone born after 1 January 2000.2829 Some cities in California have prohibited the sale of tobacco and nicotine products within their jurisdictions,30 and others have restricted the number or types of retailers permitted to sell tobacco products.31

In 2016, Balanga City in the Philippines banned the sale and use of all tobacco and nicotine products to those born after 1 January 2000. It also expanded the coverage of an existing smoking ban in the city’s University Town to cover a wider radius. However, both measures were overturned in 2018 after the tobacco industry pursued litigation.3233

Tobacco industry interference

As of 2023, Malaysia, New Zealand and the UK are the only countries that have announced plans to adopt a generational endgame policy. New Zealand also proposed introducing mandated denicotinisation and substantial retailer reduction.

Tobacco industry interference to prevent, delay or undermine the legislation has been observed in each of these countries, and is detailed below.

Malaysia

Proposed legislation

In 2022, Malaysia proposed the ‘Control of Tobacco Products and Smoking Bill 2022’ which aimed to phase out tobacco products and e-cigarettes by introducing a generational endgame policy, prohibiting their use and sale to everyone born on or after 1 January 2007.34

However, when the latest version of the bill was tabled in 2023, the generational ban clause was omitted for all products.35

Interference from industry and associated organisations

Prior to the bill being tabled, several organisations lobbied against the inclusion of e-cigarettes in the generational endgame policy.363738 One of these organisations, the Malaysian Vapers Alliance (MVA), is a member of the World Vapers’ Alliance,39 which has received funding from the Consumer Choice Center and BAT. The MVA urged the government to exclude e-cigarettes from the generational ban, and stated that it had conducted a survey of 5000 adult vape users, 96.6% of which did not agree with the ban.40

When the generational endgame clause was removed from the bill, Malaysia’s former health minister stated that this was due to strong lobbying from tobacco companies.35 According to local advocates the bill had seen an “unprecedented level of industry interference, some of which have been done in clear violation of the WHO Framework Convention on Tobacco Control”.41

It is not clear what actions were taken by the tobacco industry to oppose the bill, however industry interference in government activities in Malaysia is high, and has continued to rise in recent years.4243

New Zealand

Proposed legislation

In December 2022, as part of its ‘Smokefree Aotearoa 2025 Action Plan’,44 New Zealand passed the ‘Smokefree Environments and Regulated Products’ Amendment Act’ into law, which would have implemented several tobacco endgame policies.45 The legislation included three key approaches: a ban on tobacco products being sold to anyone born on or after 1 January 2009, a significant reduction in the amount of nicotine permitted in tobacco products (an 0.8mg/g nicotine limit, compared to 15-16mg/g present in full strength cigarettes), and a huge reduction in the number of retailers allowed to sell tobacco products across the country (from 6000 to 600).4546

The legislation was due to be implemented progressively starting with the reduction in retailer numbers from July 2024, however in November 2023, as part of an agreement between parties forming a new coalition government, all three endgame proposals were repealed. The new finance minister stated that the additional tobacco tax revenues resulting from repealing the smokefree legislation would be used to finance tax cuts promised during the election campaign.4748

Interference from industry and associated organisations

In 2021, following the release of the Smokefree Aotearoa 2025 Action Plan, Imperial Brands, BAT and JTI all submitted responses to the government consultation opposing the major endgame policies.49 Industry linked organisations and individuals also submitted responses opposing the legislation. These included submissions from Centre for Research Excellence: Indigenous Sovereignty and Smoking (COREISS),50 which is funded by the Foundation for a Smoke Free World, and The New Zealand Initiative,51 a think tank whose members include BAT and Imperial Brands.52

In June 2021, BAT reportedly facilitated a protest amongst convenience store owners to contest the proposed tobacco product restrictions.53 BAT supplied the dairy owners with postcards which opposed the measures, including the comment “If nicotine is slashed, filters banned and price goes up, many people will go to the black market – these will badly hurt my business, increase risk of robbery to personal safety and could force store to close.” Thousands of these postcards were reportedly delivered to the New Zealand Parliament.53

In August 2023, the ‘Save our Stores’ campaign, another seemingly grassroots initiative supported by convenience store owners,54 called for users to sign a petition urging the government to repeal the latest Smokefree 2025 laws. The campaign website stated that it was “supported by” BAT New Zealand and Imperial Brands New Zealand. The campaign website argued that “A ban on normal strength cigarettes will just mean the illicit trade in tobacco products will boom and be controlled by criminal networks”. It also stated that the legislation would destroy small businesses, and that taking away the tax revenue raised by tobacco sales would “hurt families who are already struggling to make ends meet”.55 These narratives were repeated in a series of Facebook adverts published as part of the campaign between August and November 2023, with one advert also stating “tobacco taxes pay for 35,000 police officers”.56

This kind of astroturfing is a well-documented industry tactic.

UK

Proposed legislation

In October 2023, the UK announced plans to introduce a generational endgame policy. The new legislation would prohibit the sale of tobacco products to anyone born after 1 January 2009. All tobacco products, cigarette papers, waterpipe tobacco and herbal smoking products were included in the proposal.24 57 Later that month, the government opened a consultation on the tobacco endgame policy, as well as on potential measures to curb the rise in youth e-cigarette use.58

Interference from industry and associated organisations

After the generational policy was announced, tobacco control researchers outlined arguments that they anticipated the industry would use to in an attempt prevent or undermine the UK legislation, based on previously used tactics. These included invoking libertarianism and arguments around personal freedom; claiming that the policy would be unworkable and impossible to police; and that it would have unintended consequences, such as increasing cigarette smuggling.59

In December 2023, there were reports that the tobacco industry was lobbying the government to increase the age of smoking to 21, instead of introducing the new generational endgame legislation. 60 An industry source quoted by The i newspaper stated that the generational ban was “unenforceable, and the inevitability of such a ban leading to a black market run by dangerous criminal gangs, there’s a large number of libertarian Tory MPs that do not like the idea the government is limiting people’s free choice…if the Prime Minister does cancel the plan, then [the industry] won’t object to him raising the smoking age to 21”.60 The illicit tobacco trade has often been used by tobacco companies to promote key misleading narratives that advance their own business goals.  See also Arguments and Language.

The i also revealed that the tobacco industry had been “inundating MPs with lobbying material in a bid to persuade them to oppose the changes”. It also reported that a letter was sent to MPs, seemingly from constituents, but in fact drafted by employees of tobacco companies, which called the generational ban “ridiculous” and “impractical, illiberal and untested”.60 Andrea Leadsom MP, Parliamentary Under Secretary of State in the Department of Health and Social Care, warned that the industry was working behind the scenes to block the policy.61

Philip Morris International (PMI) reportedly held a roundtable with UK MPs in to ensure its heated tobacco products were exempt from future smoking bans.60

British American Tobacco (BAT) were reported to be sponsoring a roundtable due to be hosted by MP Graham Brady on behalf of the Centre for Policy Studies in December 2023 to “discuss the Government’s smokefree ambitions, what policies could support the goal, and what a Conservative approach to public health should look like.”6062 BAT stated that the proposed legislation would be difficult to enforce, and risked creating a new category of “under-age adults”.63 BAT also published briefing in response to the consultation,  which outlined its stance on e-cigarette restrictions.64

Imperial Brands and the Tobacco Manufacturers’ Association also reportedly engaged with MPs and government officials regarding the proposals, with a spokesperson for Imperial Brands stating “We understand the Government’s desire for new tobacco control measures, because of the health risks associated with smoking. But, like any prohibition, the proposal to ban the legal sale of cigarettes over time threatens significant unintended consequences.”60

In November 2023, Japan Tobacco International (JTI) carried out a survey of 1000 convenience retailers in the UK, and reported concerns that a smoking ban would harm business, increase illicit trade, make ID checks more complicated for retailer staff and impact staff training around underage sales.65

The Institute of Economic Affairs, a British think tank with a history of tobacco industry funding, published a briefing paper in November 2023 titled ‘Prohibition 2.0: Critiquing the Generational Tobacco Ban’.66 The report echoed the industry narrative that a smoking ban would drive illicit trade and “bolster criminal gangs”. It also stated that a ban would “lead to a grey market in sales between friends” and that it “infantilises one cohort of adults, discriminates on the basis of age and raises issues of intergenerational unfairness.”66 The report disregarded figures published in a review commissioned by the UK’s Department of Health in 2022 relating to the cost of smoking to the NHS, and stated “The reality is that smokers pay far more in tobacco duty than they cost the state in healthcare, while nonsmokers cost the state more, on average, in both healthcare and social security payments”.66 Action on Smoking and Health (ASH) published an analysis in December 2023 which found that smoking costs England £49.2 billion each year in lost productivity and service costs, plus an additional £25.9 billion lost quality adjusted life years due to premature death from smoking – far outweighing the money brought in from tobacco taxes.67

The Consumer Choice Center (CCC), a US lobby group with a history of tobacco industry funding and links to the Atlas Network, launched a campaign titled ‘No2Prohibition’ which urged the public to contact their MP to oppose the new legislation.68 The campaign used the argument that the legislation would result in an increase in illicit trade and stated “Discriminating against adult consumers, depending on what year they were born, is unheard of and would set a dangerous precedent for future regulations. What’s next? Alcohol? Sugar? Fat? We can only imagine”.68 The campaign included a series of social media adverts centred on messages of freedom of choice and prohibition.69 These ads were removed by Meta as they did not include verified “paid for by” disclaimers.69

Forest, a British based Smokers’ rights group with a history of tobacco industry funding, stated that it had urged the government not to introduce a generational ban, ahead of the government consultation deadline in December 2023. It also commissioned a consultancy to carry out a survey, which it states found that “58% of respondents think that if a person can vote, drive a car, buy alcohol, or possess a credit card at 18, they should also be allowed to purchase tobacco”.70

The Association of Convenience Stores (ACS) is an organisation that represents local stores in the UK. Its “Premier Club” members include BAT, JTI, PMI, Imperial Brands and JUUL.71 ACS stated in December that it had responded to the government consultation, and in its submission “set out a number of concerns about the practical implications of the [generational endgame] policy”. It also stated that it did not support a ban on disposable e-cigarettes.72

Relevant Links

TobaccoTactics Resources

Tobacco Control Research Group (TCRG) Research

G. Hartwell, AB. Gilmore, M C I . van Schalkwyk, M. McKee, Sunak’s smoke-free generation: spare a thought for the tobacco industry, BMJ, 2023; 383 :p2922 doi:10.1136/bmj.p2922

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