The tobacco industry uses a variety of unethical, often unlawful tactics to undermine implementation of life-saving policies. In 2015, the six largest cigarette companies made a profit of $9730 per each death from tobacco smoking.
When governments implement effective tobacco control policies, tobacco smoking declines. More quitting and less initiation of tobacco use contribute to greater individual and societal well-being. Successful tobacco control also hurts the financial health of tobacco companies. Consequently, tobacco companies act in their own interest, for example, by aggressively lobbying and litigating against government tobacco control policies, among other tactics.
In its zeal to promote tobacco use, the tobacco industry regularly perpetrates unethical, and often unlawful, interference with life-saving tobacco control policies. Although tobacco companies compete for market share, they often collude to counter government tobacco control efforts, or support front groups to do the job for them. Other strategies involve openly misrepresenting scientific evidence to confuse the public.
Limiting this tobacco industry interference is possible. The WHO FCTC Article 5.3 guidelines identify specific limitations to the industry’s involvement in policymaking, and outline strategies to limit the industry’s participation and misconduct, including paying close attention to the industry’s actions. Industry monitoring programs are in place in many countries (including Brazil, South Africa, Sri Lanka, and the UK, among others). However, many governments do not report results from these monitoring efforts to the FCTC Secretariat as required by the treaty, nor is there sufficient effort yet to share this information among governments. Resources to address industry interference are also frequently lacking. International donors, such as the Bloomberg Philanthropies, have provided helpful funds for countries that lack capacity or resources to face multi-billion dollar companies in courts. Still, more stable funding mechanisms for legal support to governments are needed. In many places, directing funds from increases in tobacco taxes could help to bridge this gap.
The tobacco industry has long denied established scientific knowledge and popularized falsehoods, from deliberately clouding the links between smoking and lung cancer decades ago to misrepresenting the effects of plain packaging regulations now. In the US, they effectively utilized a small number of scientists to sow doubt about the hazards of smoking among policymakers and the public. The industry has promoted general mistrust toward science — a phenomenon that cripples global progress.
The industry uses media to influence attitudes on a massive scale, often without disclosing funding, sponsorship, or authorship of content presented as objective “news”. The industry secures content consistent with their interests by using advertising dollars to control media messages, by manufacturing information sources, or by ghostwriting pro-tobacco content. These messages underplay the benefits of proposed policies, exaggerate their costs, and overstate the industry’s contribution to the economy and government revenue.
Tobacco companies use philanthropy to link their public image with positive causes and build support among more credible groups, including local communities, NGOs, artistic/athletic organizations, academic institutions, or even governments and development agencies. When new tobacco control policies are on the agenda, the image of a good “corporate citizen” redirects attention away from the dire consequences of smoking.
Usurping the agenda
The industry declares itself “part of the solution”, but its ineffective voluntary measures cloud the regulatory space, often preventing or delaying implementation of effective policies. The industry previously launched campaigns to supposedly prevent youth smoking, which superficially appeared to warn against smoking, but were ultimately found to encourage kids to start smoking. The industry now proposes to “solve” challenges with illicit cigarettes via an industry-controlled tracking system, shifting power from governments to the industry. The industry also demands a voice in harm-reduction policy-making by claiming a commitment to producing less-harmful products. For example, Philip Morris International recently created a Foundation for a Smoke-Free World while continuing to actively promote their same lethal products.
Creating illusion of support
Front groups appear to serve a public cause but actually serve as the voice of the tobacco industry. These groups amplify industry messages by disguising the messenger, frequently giving policymakers the illusion of a broader coalition. The tobacco industry funds groups ranging from restaurant associations opposed to smoke-free laws, to large international think tanks against tax hikes. These groups repeatedly fail to disclose their funding and sponsorship, deceiving policymakers and the public about their true origin and intentions.
Lobbying and hijacking legislative processes
The industry uses political contributions and front groups to gain access to policymakers, and does not hesitate to provide ready-to-use legislative proposals. Governments determined to control tobacco use are being intimidated by messages misusing scientific evidence and misrepresenting effects of proposed regulations. In a particularly egregious example in 2017, the UK Serious Fraud Office opened an investigation into British American Tobacco involvement in bribing policymakers in at least four African countries: Burundi, Comoros, Kenya, and Rwanda.
Once tobacco control legislation is passed, the industry often decides to deliberately circumvent or disobey the rules. One of the most damaging is the industry’s involvement in the illicit cigarette trade, dodging tobacco taxes and supplying large quantities of their products through illegal channels.
Litigation has become one of the industry’s deadliest weapons. The battles are fought at every level from domestic courts to international arbitration, where the vast legal resources of the large tobacco firms are commonly pitted against the often-limited legal resources of low- and medium-HDI countries. When the companies cannot directly bring a case, they use countries with lower public-policy standards to file formal disputes for them. The industry has been actively litigating tobacco control regulations in dozens of countries, while litigation threats “chill” similar measures in other countries, such as plain-packaging laws in New Zealand.
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Inspired by: Trochim, W M K, F A Stillman, P I Clark, and C L Schmitt. “Development of a Model of the Tobacco Industry’s Interference with Tobacco Control Programmes.” Tobacco Control 12, no. 2 (June 1, 2003): 140. doi:10.1136/tc.12.2.140.
Profits per Death
In 2015, the world's 6 largest cigarette manufacturers made a profit of more than $62 billion and cigarettes killed more than 6.4 million people, or put another way, $9730 of profit per death.
Patricio V. Marquez, China’s 2015 tobacco tax adjustment: a step in the right direction http://blogs.worldbank.org/health/china-s-2015-tobacco-tax-adjustment-step-right-direction