Tobacco Industry Tactics

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There is general consensus in the global tobacco control community, and among parties to the World Health Organization Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (WHO FCTC), that tobacco industry interference is the greatest barrier to progress in reducing tobacco’s deadly toll.1 Article 5.3 of the FCTC, obliges countries to protect their health policies from the “vested interests of the tobacco industry”.23

Background

In the 1950s, independent scientific research began to definitively establish the link between smoking and cancer. Since then, the tobacco industry has used a wide range of strategies and tactics designed to keep people using its products and disrupt efforts to protect public health.4 This can involve attempts to block, weaken or delay proposed regulation, or to undermine or circumvent existing regulation. In 1953, PMI helped create the Tobacco Industry Research Committee in order to cast doubt upon legitimate science.4 This tactic, of the industry presenting itself as objective, concerned only with establishing the facts and protecting the health of its customers, is still in use today and the industry continues to act through front groups and other third parties. Other longstanding strategies include lobbying, legal threats and action.

Strategic goals

The Policy Dystopia Model (PDM), developed by TCRG researchers and published in 2016, identifies several broad strategies used by the industry to achieve its goals. In addition to lobbying and legal threats, tobacco companies use the following strategies:5

  • Information management – to create and disseminate industry-friendly evidence while attacking public health evidence.
  • Reputation management – to rehabilitate the reputation of the industry while attacking public health advocates, researchers and organisations.
  • Coalition management – to build a tobacco industry coalition while fragmenting the public health coalition.

The PDM includes a taxonomy which details a range of tactics used by the tobacco industry which are implemented to varying degrees across different markets, adapted to individual countries according to perceived local vulnerabilities. The taxonomy was refined by TCRG researchers in 2021, to take account of the tactics used in low- and middle-income countries (LMICs).6

For example, the tobacco industry’s reputation can be more positive in LMICs, particularly those in which tobacco is grown or tobacco products manufactured, or in which tobacco companies are major taxpayers.6 Therefore tobacco companies do not necessarily need to rehabilitate their reputation, but rather to maintain it, going to great lengths to do so through CSR and public relations.6 In cases where such initiatives occur in partnership with government departments, the industry can gain access to, and enhance its reputation with, policy makers and the public. Partnerships with local authorities can even give access to state employees responsible for the implementation of regulation or ensuring compliance with the law.6

Tobacco companies also use the more direct commercial strategies of marketing, sponsorship and other forms of promotion such as Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR).  They have complex strategies around taxation and product pricing. They have also been found to be complicit in the illicit tobacco trade. Company strategies overlap and tactics are often combined. Ultimately, all strategies and tactics serve the same goal – to maximise profits. The key tactics are summarised below, with links to further information on TobaccoTactics.

Industry Tactics

Legal threats and actions

Companies’ frequently use litigation, or the threat of litigation, to attempt to challenge laws, intimidate governments, and influence policy.

They may use laws relating to international trade and intellectual property (IP) to delay or block tobacco control measures. Companies can tie up governments in court cases for many years, often at great cost, particularly to LMICs. See for example:

Intimidation

Intimidation can be a form of coalition, or reputation, management.7 Public health advocates can  experience intimidation, for example via public-facing attacks against individuals or organisations, as well as legal threats or action.789

See also:

Researchers can also experience intimidation. One example is the use of Freedom of Information Requests to try to access unpublished research data.

Lobbying and Influencing Policy

Lobbying is targeted at decision makers, including politicians and civil servants involved in policy making, and can be direct or indirect

Direct methods may involve the use of incentives, for example offering to spend money in a politician’s local area, or threats such as moving production and jobs out of the country. In some cases, there are allegations of and corruption.

More indirect methods include making donations to political parties or communities, or providing hospitality to politicians. All of these come under the umbrella of coalition management.

Sometimes influence may be facilitated, via individuals going through the ‘revolving door’ between the tobacco industry and government.

Claiming a Public Health Role

As the global cigarette market has started to shrink, tobacco companies have invested in newer nicotine and tobacco products. These may be labelled ‘reduced risk’ or ‘modified risk’ products.

Tobacco companies use harm reduction to try to get a ‘seat at the table’ and influence policy, while attacking their critics and undermining public health.

Promotional programmes use phrases such as “smoke-free world” (PMI), “better tomorrow” (BAT) or “brighter future” (JTI), and frame these as part of their Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) activities (see below), increasingly reported under the banner of Environmental and Social Governance (ESG).

Tobacco companies often publicise their role in fighting the illicit tobacco trade. This can also be a way for them to claim a role in public health, although they may be found to be involved in the illicit trade themselves (see below for details).

Support Through Allies

Tobacco companies make use of the third party technique to represent their interests. This is a form of coalition management where companies operate with other organisations to promote industry interests and undermine public health. These industry “allies” can be described in different ways, depending on their form, links to industry, or activities.

The STOP database of Tobacco Industry Allies has three categories:10

For more details see the Tobacco Industry Allies pages on exposetobacco.org and the related terms and methodology.

  • Diplomats have also lobbied on behalf of tobacco companies.

Controversial Marketing

Tobacco companies use a range of marketing strategies to increase sales and profits, and many are controversial. These can include targeting youth, women and girls or minority groups.

Companies increasingly use social media & influencers in their marketing.

They also promote their products via sponsorship of globally popular activities such as motorsport and football, in some cases contravening, circumventing or undermining regulations designed to restrict these activities.

Corporate Social Responsibility

The WHO states that tobacco company Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) activities come under the definition of advertising, promotion and sponsorship, and are covered by Article 5.3.3 The tobacco industry may use CSR as a form of coalition management, and in some cases information management.

Tobacco company CSR activities might involve partnership with charities, local authorities, or even governments, or participation in global organisations. It commonly includes activities around healthfarming, child labour and the environment (often called  ‘greenwashing’).

Sometimes companies make donations to charities and other civil society organisations,  fund education programmes, or sponsor the arts.

The industry has also been known to exploit national and global events, including via disaster relief and, from 2020, the Covid-19 pandemic.

  • See the database of CSR related specifically to Covid-19.

Tobacco companies also enter themselves for multiple awards relating to innovation, environment and sustainability, equality and diversity and other employment practices.

Involvement in Illicit Tobacco

According to the WHO FCTC, illicit trade is:

“any practice or conduct prohibited by law and which relates to production, shipment, receipt, possession, distribution, sale or purchase including any practice or conduct intended to facilitate such activity.”2

Evidence indicates ongoing tobacco company involvement in the illicit tobacco trade, and specifically tobacco smuggling.  This may also be used as a tool to influence policy development.6

Influencing Science

The tobacco industry has a long history of influencing the scientific debate on smoking and health.

Specific tactics include:

All are forms of information management. Tobacco companies have created websites to promote their own science, and used them to report their approaches to the science on newer products.

Tobacco companies also fund third parties to commission research, including relating to harm reduction and newer nicotine and tobacco products.

Undermining National or International Laws

In order to preserve its product markets and profits, tobacco companies often act in ways that undermine, or contravene, national and international laws, including the WHO FCTC.

See for example pages covering industry attempts to interfere with or undermine regulations relating to:

Examples can also be found on country profile and region profile pages.

Other TobaccoTactics Resources

TCRG Research

The Policy Dystopia Model: An Interpretive Analysis of Tobacco Industry Political Activity, S. Ulucanlar, G.J. Fooks, A.B. Gilmore, PLoS Medicine, 2016, 13(9): e1002125, doi:10.1371/journal.pmed.1002125

Developing more detailed taxonomies of tobacco industry political activity in low-income and middle-income countries: qualitative evidence from eight countries, B.K. Matthes, K. Lauber, M. Zatoński, et al, BMJ Global Health, 2021;6:e004096, doi: 10.1136/bmjgh-2020-004096

Advocacy counterstrategies to tobacco industry interference in policymaking: a scoping review of peer-reviewed literature, B.K Matthes, P. Kumar, S. Dance, T. Hird, A. Carriedo Lutzenkirchen, A. B. Gilmore,  Global Health 19, 42 (2023), doi: 10.1186/s12992-023-00936-7

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

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References

  1. World Health Organization, Tobacco industry interference with tobacco control, 2008
  2. abWorld Health Organization, WHO Framework Convention on Tobacco Control, 2003
  3. abWorld Health Organization, Guidelines for implementation of Article 5.3 of the WHO FCTC, 2008/2013
  4. abSTOP/Tobacco Control Research Group, ”Addiction At Any Cost: Philip Morris International Uncovered”, 20 February 2020. Available from exposetobacco.org
  5. S. Ulucanlar, G.J. Fooks, A.B. Gilmore, The Policy Dystopia Model: An Interpretive Analysis of Tobacco Industry Political Activity, PLoS Medicine, 2016, 13(9): e1002125, doi:10.1371/journal.pmed.1002125
  6. abcdeB.K. Matthes, K. Lauber, M. Zatoński, et al, Developing more detailed taxonomies of tobacco industry political activity in low-income and middle-income countries: qualitative evidence from eight countries, BMJ Global Health, 2021;6:e004096, doi: 10.1136/bmjgh-2020-004096
  7. abB. Matthes, M. Zatonski, R. Ableshehy et al, “To be honest, I’m really scared”: perceptions and experiences of intimidation in the LMIC-based tobacco control community, Tobacco Control, Published Online First, 19 July 2022, doi: 10.1136/tc-2022-057271
  8. B.K. Matthes, R. Alebshehy, A.B. Gilmore, “They try to suppress us, but we should be louder”: a qualitative exploration of intimidation in tobacco control, Globalization & Health, 19:88, 2023, doi: 10.1186/s12992-023-00991-0.
  9. M. Campbell, J. Meikle, Pro-smoking activists threaten and harass health campaigners, The Guardian, 1 June 2012, accessed July 2023
  10. Shining the Light on Tobacco Industry Allies, website and database, accessed July 2023. Available at exposetobacco.org