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Tobacco tax: “a major threat to our existence”

Tobacco tax, per the World Health Organisation, is now recognised as the single most effective measure in fighting ‘the global tobacco epidemic’. But Big Tobacco saw this a very long time ago – which makes you wonder what they’ve been doing about it…

Recognising the threat

Prof. Simon Chapman summarises a great deal of the story in his brilliant article on Australia’s experience, including linking to some fascinating documents from the industry archives.

Tobacco company Philip Morris (Australia) in 1983 said:

… The most certain way to reduce consumption is through price.

Then again in 1985:

… Of all the concerns, there is one – taxation – which alarms us the most. While marketing restrictions and public and passive smoking do depress volume, in our experience taxation depresses it much more severely. Our concern for taxation is, therefore, central to our thinking about smoking and health. It has historically been the area to which we have devoted most resources and for the foreseeable future, I think things will stay that way almost everywhere.

And 1993:

… A high cigarette price, more than any other cigarette attribute, has the most dramatic impact on the share of the quitting population.

Responding to the threat

The 1985 document stands out, as it shows an industry discussion of the importance of tax – ‘a major threat to our existence‘.

Our efforts have been sporadic, reactive, and though we have had some successes, our effectiveness in the tax area has been questionable to say the least…

At this stage, the thinking on how to fight tax rises recognises the importance of mobilising smokers on a ‘fair tax‘ agenda.


Over time, tax features increasingly frequently in the industry archive, and the lobbying partners become ever broader.

A key element is work with economic think tanks, often those of a conservative and/or corporate bent.

Payments are recorded to the Tax Foundation in the United States, for example, and its spin-off the International Tax and Investment Center – on which more anon.

The themes of Big Tobacco’s response to the threat of tax became increasingly focused too, and the same attack lines increasingly embedded in their discourse.

Among these, a key line is that tax rises lead to more ‘illicit’ tobacco consumption (does that kill you faster?). More on this too, soon.

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