10.17 Tobacco industry lobbying: overview

While in the market place the tobacco companies are fiercely competitive, when it comes to protecting their collective patch—preserving corporate viability—they have demonstrated strategic and financial collaboration at the highest level. In Australia and internationally, the tobacco industry has developed a comprehensive, multi-faceted, multi-level approach to defending its interests. This has included creating ways to undermine the credibility of the medico-scientific community and public health interests, developing networks of influence throughout the business community and the political world, permeating community interest groups and charities, and mobilising smokers, retailers, hoteliers, trade organisations and others whose interests overlap with those of the tobacco industry.

The capacity of the tobacco industry to interfere with tobacco control legislation has been identified as a major barrier to the introduction of health measures. In the WHO Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (WHO FCTC), Article 5.3 (which outlines the general obligations of members) states that, 'In setting and implementing their public health policies with respect to tobacco control, Parties shall act to protect these policies from commercial and other vested interests of the tobacco industry in accordance with national law'.1 i

At its third session in November 2008, the Conference of the Parties adopted guidelines for implementation of Article 5.3.2 Eight key areas are outlined for recommended action2:

  1. Raise awareness about the addictive and harmful nature of tobacco products and about tobacco industry interference with Parties' tobacco control policies.
  2. Establish measures to limit interactions with the tobacco industry and ensure the transparency of those interactions that occur.
  3. Reject partnerships and non-binding or non-enforceable agreements with the tobacco industry.
  4. Avoid conflicts of interest for government officials and employees.
  5. Require that information provided by the tobacco industry be transparent and accurate.
  6. Denormalise and, to the extent possible, regulate activities described as "socially responsible" by the tobacco industry, including but not limited to activities described as "corporate social responsibility".
  7. Do not give preferential treatment to the tobacco industry.
  8. Treat State-owned tobacco industry in the same way as any other tobacco industry.

Analyses of tobacco industry interference tactics, based on many years of observation and research, have been published, such as those by Sweda and Daynard,3 Saloojee and Dagli4 Trochim et al5 and the National Cancer Institute (US).6 The 2009 WHO report, Tobacco Industry Interference in Tobacco Control,7 summarises these various tactics; see Table 10.17.1.

Table 10.17.1
Tobacco industry interference in tobacco control summary of tactics



Intelligence gathering

To monitor opponents and social trends in order to anticipate future challenges

Public relations

To mould public opinion, using the media to promote positions favourable to the industry

Political funding

To use campaign contributions to win votes and legislative favours from politicians


To make deals and influence political processes

Consultancy programme

To recruit supposedly independent experts critical of tobacco control measures

Funding research—including universities

To create doubt about existing evidence of the health effects of tobacco use

Smokers' rights groups

To create an impression of spontaneous, grass roots public support

Creating alliances and front groups

To mobilise farmers, retailers, advertising agencies, the hospitality industry, 'grass roots' and anti-tax groups with a view to influencing legislation


To use legal and economic power as a means of harassing and frightening opponents who support tobacco control


To buy friends and social respectability from arts, sports and cultural groups

Corporate social responsibility

To promote voluntary measures as an effective way to address tobacco control and create illusion of being a 'changed' company and to establish partnerships with health interests

Youth smoking prevention and retailer education programs

To appear as being onside with efforts to prevent children from smoking and to frame smoking as an adult choice


To challenge laws and intimidate tobacco industry opponents


To undermine tobacco excise tax policies and marketing and trade restrictions and thereby increase profits

International treaties and other international instruments

To use trade agreements to force entry into closed markets and to challenge the legality of proposed tobacco control legislation

Joint manufacturing and licensing agreements and voluntary policy agreements with governments

To form joint ventures with state monopolies and subsequently pressure governments to privatise monopolies


To overrule local or state level of government by taking away its power to act

Source: World Health Organization, 20097

The following sections discuss some of the ways in which the industry has worked towards its goals. The subject has been extensively explored in the medical and public health literature and references cited in the following pages provide the interested reader with a wealth of further information. Several commentators have concluded that systematic and rigorous monitoring of these activities is an essential first step in countering industry interference in tobacco control.8–10

10.17.1 Freedom of choice arguments

The term 'nanny state' applied to either health groups or governments is a favourite cliché used by tobacco industry and its allies to oppose further regulation.11 'Labelling arguments as "nanny statist" is a form of ad hominem attack that aims not to expose the limitations of a position, but to discredit the individual advancing that argument.'12 The preferred counter frame of opponents of the 'nanny state' is 'freedom of choice'. In August 2011, an entire Australian political party was launched on the premise of 'freedom of choice': The Tobacco and Alcohol Party of Australia. This party 'objects to nanny state politics' and was formed to act as a 'voice for choice' for consumers. No statistics are publicly available on the number of members recruited or any financial support that has been received from donors, but the official Facebook page for the party only had 31 members as of 16 August 2011.

Proponents of government intervention to protect and support health recognise that individual choices do not happen in a vacuum but are heavily influenced by the environment in which they are made. Regulation of the environment can assist individuals to be freer to make their own choices.12 The state can help to create an environment that empowers people to make their own choices. This is particularly true in the case of tobacco, where the industry acts aggressively, through persuasive marketing and product development, to recruit new consumers and keep existing ones.13

The tobacco industry and its supporters seek to portray themselves, not as profit seekers, but as defenders of fundamental freedoms. They use 'freedom of choice' arguments to enlist the support of civil libertarians, media interests and the business community against any regulation of smoking and tobacco promotion.14 Freedom of choice arguments shift the blame and full responsibility for complex public health issues on to the shoulders of individuals in order to negate the role that the industry plays in fostering unhealthy behaviours. Table 10.17.2 outlines the common arguments used by 'freedom of choice' advocates.

Table 10.17.2
Freedom of choice arguments and the tobacco control counter arguments 12, 14, 15

Freedom of choice arguments

Tobacco control response

Smoking is an adult choice

Most people start smoking when they are children

Quitting smoking is easy, people will quit if they no longer wish to smoke

Smoking is addictive and most smokers regret ever starting and face difficulties when quitting

Tobacco is a legal product

If the risks were known when tobacco was first introduced on the market it would not have been legal to sell it

People are well aware of the health and risks of addiction and choose to smoke anyway

Most smokers underestimate the health risks and become addicted as children; the tobacco industry actively hid the truth about the health risks from the public

To preserve individual liberty, both smokers and non-smokers should be accommodated in public places; banning smoking is unnecessary

Secondhand smoke is harmful to non-smokers and the two most vulnerable groups—children and employees—have no choice about whether or not they are exposed

Education on the harms is the best option and then people can chose for themselves whether or not to smoke

Education alone has very little impact on smoking rates and unless accompanied by regulation could lead to greater disparity, concentrating smoking further in the most disadvantaged populations

10.17.2 Economic importance of the industry

Another common argument perpetuated by the tobacco industry and its allies is that the tobacco business is a vital contributor to the health of economy. Warner has outlined the common economic myths circulated by the industry and has also provided a counter summary of the economic realities.16 See Table 10.17.3 for a summary of the tobacco industry economic myths.

Table 10.17.3
Tobacco economic myths versus reality16

Tobacco industry economic myth

Economic reality

Without the cultivation of tobacco, manufacture of tobacco products and distribution and sale of products, a country's economy will suffer devastating economic consequences. Jobs will be lost, incomes will fall, tax revenues will plummet and trade surpluses will veer dangerously in the direction of deficits.

The myth in the tobacco industry's economic importance argument is that a significant economic presencenecessarily implies significant economic dependence. Implicit in the industry's argument is the notion that a decline in tobacco economic activity will entail a comparable decline in the economy. However, when resources are no longer devoted to a given economic activity, they do not simply disappear into thin air; rather they are redirected to other economic functions.*

Specific tobacco control policies will cause severe economic hardship in specific non-tobacco industries—especially smoking bans in hospitality.

Empirical analyses have found this to be patently false and smoking bans may in fact be bring economic benefits to the hospitality sector.17

A large tax increase is undesirable because it will reduce government revenues by decreasing legal cigarette sales. This will result from decreased smoking and increased smuggling of lower priced cigarettes from neighbouring countries.

While smokers are price sensitive, they are not sensitive to the degree suggested by this argument. For all politically feasible tax increases, revenue increases would be expected in nearly every country in the world, at least for some period of years. Smuggling claims are greatly exaggerated by the industry18. In any event, smuggling can be successfully combated through better and more complete record keeping, the use of prominent tax stamps, increased penalties for violation of the law, vigorous enforcement of the law, and the banning of in-transit trade.

Even if a tax increase would raise government revenues and decrease smoking, it is fundamentally unfair because its burden would fall disproportionately on the poor.

A given tobacco tax typically will be distributed regressively. A tax increase, however, may not be regressive. This can result because the poor are typically considerably more responsive to price changes than are the affluent. Legislators can reduce concerns about inequity by dedicating some portion of the revenues from the increased tax to assist low income smokers to quit.

* A small number of countries, including most notably Malawi, are so dependent on tobacco that any substantial declines in their tobacco industries would represent a genuine shock to their economies: see Section 10.15 on ethical farming for more information.

One of the most important economic considerations in tobacco control is that, 'tobacco inflicts a greater harm among disadvantaged groups'.19 Smoking is both a contributor to and a consequence of poverty and disadvantage. Policies and interventions focusing on smoking prevention and cessation among the poor are an important component of national and international tobacco control.19 The imbalance between the tobacco industry's economic strength and the typically low political power of public health authorities in low and middle countries emphasises that focusing on the most disadvantaged must be a global effort.20

Recent news and research

For recent news items and research on this topic, click here (Last updated October 2017) 



i Of course, the Framework Convention on Tobacco Control has itself been the object of intense tobacco industry lobbying. See Section 10.19.


1. WHO Framework Convention on Tobacco Control. Geneva: World Health Organization, 2003. Available from: http://www.who.int/tobacco/framework/en/

2. WHO Framework Convention on Tobacco Control Conference of the Parties. Elaboration of guidelines for implementation of Article 5.3 of the Convention. Geneva: World Health Organization, 2008. Available from: http://www.who.int/fctc/guidelines/article_5_3/en/index.html

3. Sweda EL, Jr and Daynard RA. Tobacco industry tactics. British Medical Bulletin 1996;52(1):183-92. Available from: http://bmb.oxfordjournals.org/cgi/reprint/52/1/183

4. Saloojee Y and Dagli E. Tobacco industry tactics for resisting public policy on health. Bulletin of the World Health Organization 2000;78:902-10. Available from: http://www.who.int/bulletin/archives/78(7)902.pdf

5. Trochim WMK, Stillman FA, Clark PI and Schmitt CL. Development of a model of the tobacco industry's interference with tobacco control programmes. Tobacco Control 2003;12(2):140-7. Available from: http://tobaccocontrol.bmj.com/cgi/reprint/12/2/140

6. Fox B, Bialous S, Trochim W, Stillman F and C S. Chapter 8. Evaluating tobacco industry tactics as a counterforce to ASSIST. Evaluating ASSIST: a blueprint for understanding state-level tobacco control. Bethesda, Maryland: Department of Health and Human Services, National Institutes of Health, National Cancer Institute, 2006;Available from: http://cancercontrol.cancer.gov/tcrb/monographs/17/m17_complete.pdf

7. World Health Organization. Tobacco industry interference with tobacco control. Geneva: WHO, 2009, [viewed 14 August 2011]. Available from: http://whqlibdoc.who.int/publications/2008/9789241597340_eng.pdf

8. Morabia A and Costanza MC. Let's Not Have to Hear It through the Grapevine. Preventive Medicine 2009;48(suppl. 1):S1-2. Available from: http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0091743509000036

9. Cruz TB. Monitoring the tobacco use epidemic IV. The vector: tobacco industry data sources and recommendations for research and evaluation. Preventive Medicine 2009;48(suppl.1):S24-34. Available from: http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0091743508005136

10. Stillman F, Hoang M, Linton R, Ritthiphakdee B and Trochim W. Mapping tobacco industry strategies in South East Asia for action planning and surveillance. Tobacco Control 2008;17(1):e1. Available from: http://tobaccocontrol.bmj.com/cgi/content/abstract/17/1/e1

11. Daube M, Stafford J and Bond L. No need for nanny. Tobacco Control 2008;17(6):426-7. Available from: http://tobaccocontrol.bmj.com/cgi/content/abstract/17/6/426

12. Hoek J. Public health, regulation and the nanny state fallacy. Conference paper. Partnerships, Proof and Practice – International Nonprofit and Social Marketing Conference 2008, University of Wollongong, 15–16 July 2008. Wollongong, Australia: University of Wollongong Research Online, 2008. Available from: http://ro.uow.edu.au/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1001&context=insm08

13. Bayer R and Kelly M. Tobacco control and free speech - an American dilemma. The New England Journal of Medicine 2010;362(4):281–3. Available from: http://content.nejm.org/cgi/content/full/362/4/281

14. Advocacy Institute. Smoke signals. The Tobacco Control Media Handbook. Washington: The Advocacy Institute, unknown year, [viewed 16 August 2011]. Available from: www.strategyguides.globalink.org/docs/smoke_signals.doc

15. Chapman S. Public Health Advocacy and Tobacco Control: Making Smoking History. Oxford: Blackwell, 2007.

16. Warner KE. The economics of tobacco: myths and realities. Tobacco Control 2000;9(1):78-89. Available from: http://tobaccocontrol.bmj.com/content/9/1/78.short

17. Scollo M, Lal A, Hyland A and Glantz S. Review of the quality of studies on the economic effects of smoke-free policies on the hospitality industry. Tobacco Control 2003;12(1):13. Available from: http://tobaccocontrol.bmj.com/cgi/reprint/12/1/13

18. Chapman S. British American Tobacco report: more holes than a sieve. Croakey. Sydney: crikey.com.au, 2010, [viewed 16 August 2011]. Available from: http://blogs.crikey.com.au/croakey/2010/02/08/british-american-tobacco-report-more-holes-than-a-sieve/

19. World Health Organization. Systematic review of the link between tobacco and poverty. Geneva: WHO, 2011, [viewed 16 August 2011]. Available from: http://whqlibdoc.who.int/publications/2011/9789241500548_eng.pdf

20. Bump JB, Reich MR, Adeyi O and Khetrapal S. Towards a political economy of tobacco control in low- and middle-income countries. Health, nutrition and population (HNP) discussion paper. Washington, DC: World Bank, 2009, [viewed 16 August 2011]. Available from: http://siteresources.worldbank.org/HEALTHNUTRITIONANDPOPULATION/Resources/281627-1095698140167/PoliticalEconTobaccoFINAL.pdf

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