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Nine facts about tobacco company lobbying

The tobacco industry has often been accused of using underhand tactics to oppose regulations that threaten its profits. Karen Evans-Reeves, research officer for the Tobacco Control Research Group at the University of Bath, with input from colleagues Silvy Peeters and Rachel Rose Jackson, outlines some of the key moments in the struggle to break a deadly addiction.

1. In England, tobacco kills over 79,000 people every year.
Deaths from tobacco exceed the total killed by obesity, alcohol and illegal drugs in England, in addition to road traffic accidents and HIV infection in Great Britain, combined. Tobacco is addictive and most of its users become hooked in childhood.

2. Under oath in 1994, tobacco company chief executives denied nicotine was addictive but their own documents showed they had known otherwise since the 1960s.

Thirty years before the testimony, the vice-president of US tobacco company Brown & Williamson wrote: ‘We are, then, in the business of selling nicotine, an addictive drug.’ By the 1970s tobacco companies were deliberately manipulating other cigarette ingredients to enhance the addictive effect of nicotine. In carefully worded testimonies each chief executive stated only that they did not believe that nicotine was addictive and therefore escaped prosecution for perjury.

3. For decades after the link between smoking and lung cancer was scientifically proven, the tobacco industry deliberately caused public confusion about the health impacts of tobacco.

In 1953, following advice from public relations firm Hill and Knowlton, tobacco companies created the Tobacco Industry Research Committee promising smokers that they would get to the bottom of the smoking and health issue. However, it rarely focused its research on smoking, focusing instead on every other conceivable cause of cancer. In 1998, Judge Gladys Kessler ordered the dissolution of the Committee stating that it was little more than ‘a sophisticated public relations vehicle based on the premise of conducting independent scientific research – to deny the harms of smoking and reassure the public’.

4. The marketing of nicotine addiction is lucrative.

Despite declining smoking rates, the tobacco companies’ profits are still climbing each year and their profit margin, an indicator of a company’s profitability, is higher than most other consumer product companies. In 2011, the UK tobacco market leader Imperial Tobacco had a profit margin of 39.5 per cent, compared to Diageo’s 31.8 per cent and Unilever’s 15.1 per cent.

5. Tobacco companies use tobacco packaging as a marketing tool – the pack is important.

Tobacco companies have vehemently opposed the introduction of plain packaging for cigarettes, claiming that the policy will not deter children from starting to smoke. However, in Philip Morris’s own words: ‘In the absence of any other marketing messages, our packaging … is the sole communicator of our brand essence. Put another way, when you don’t have anything else, our packaging is our marketing.’

6. Some tobacco companies pay third parties to promote their messages while hiding their involvement.

To enhance the credibility of their arguments and give the impression that others support their position, tobacco companies use a range of third-party techniques. They hire scientists, create, finance and manage front groups, fund think tanks (such as the Institute of Economic Affairs) and numerous business associations, which then act as the tobacco industry’s spokespersons.

7. Some tobacco companies have been involved in smuggling their own cigarettes on a global basis and are still subject to investigation for ongoing involvement in this trade.

Internal company documents reveal that smuggling was an integral part of tobacco companies’ business strategies. They make profit when they sell to the distributor regardless of whether the cigarettes are subsequently sold in legal or illegal channels. Smuggling can benefit tobacco companies because it keeps cigarettes affordable to smokers who may otherwise quit. Simultaneously, companies can also argue that illicit trade is worsening because tax is too high, lobbying the government to reduce tax and therefore cigarette price.

8. Some people doubt that tobacco companies would market e-cigarettes and other nicotine products in a way that would benefit public health.

Lessons from the past have shown that tobacco companies’ interest in reduced risk products was mostly driven by the threat of regulation driving down cigarette sales. For example, when British American Tobacco was considering investing in smokeless tobacco in the 1970s and 1980s, it said it had ‘no wish to aid or hasten any decline in cigarette smoking’. Internal documents reveal that at this time harm reduction was considered a ‘reputation management initiative’ to rehabilitate their image and allow them to be seen as ‘policy partners’ with access to policy makers in the UK and abroad.

9. Not only have tobacco companies influenced tobacco regulation, they have influenced how policy is made.

British American Tobacco, working together with other corporations whose products have been accused of being damaging to health, managed to secure changes to the EU regulatory framework that makes stakeholder consultation mandatory and requires a detailed business impact assessment of each policy. BAT anticipated these changes would make it much harder to pass public health policies in the future and this appears to be the case as a second public consultation has just taken place on the potential impacts of plain packaging in the UK.

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