Rachel Maynard and Raouf Alebshehy
A recent investigation carried out by global tobacco industry watchdog, STOP, has resulted in over 20 additional organisations being added to its Tobacco Industry Allies database. The database is an important resource to help researchers, advocates and policymakers identify third-party organisations that may be acting to promote the industry’s business interests or narrative, often without making public their links with tobacco companies. Launched in 2019, it now includes more than 130 groups across 33 countries. The organisations identified include retail groups, business associations and think-tanks, among others.
The tobacco industry’s use of these groups is not a new phenomenon. The industry’s reputation has been damaged over the years as evidence of its role in distorting scientific evidence and consistently undermining public health initiatives has emerged. And with 182 countries now being party to the WHO Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (FCTC), which requires governments to limit interactions with the industry, having a network of seemingly independent third-party organisations has become a crucial industry tool to rebuild its reputation, access policymakers and promote its agenda in a way that would not be possible without these allies. One example of this is highlighted through leaked Philip Morris International (PMI) documents from 2012, which revealed how the company planned to use several different types of third-party ‘messengers’ to counter the introduction of plain cigarette packaging.
This STOP investigation has demonstrated that the number of industry allies is growing, they are appearing across the globe and at every stage in the tobacco industry’s supply chain.
Some of the groups identified, such as Aliansi Masyarakat Tembakau Indonesia (AMTI), claim to protect the interests of tobacco farmers. AMTI has regularly lobbied against basic tobacco control measures including a ban on cigarette advertising and increases in tobacco taxes. PT HM Sampoerna Tbk, a PMI subsidiary in Indonesia, is a founder of this organisation.
Several other groups have emerged that aim to promote newer nicotine and tobacco products. The Alternative Research Initiative has received funding from the wholly PMI-funded Foundation for Smoke-Free World since 2018 to conduct studies relating to the use and understanding of what they refer to as “harm reduction products” in Pakistan.
Some of these organisations present themselves as grassroots support groups, a tactic known as ‘astroturfing’. The World Vapers Alliance (WVA), for example, presents itself as a vapers’ support organisation, and has lobbied against the regulation of e-cigarettes. An investigation conducted by the Daily Beast revealed that British American Tobacco had a key role in the creation, direction and funding of WVA.
Other allies, such as Concordia, a US-based non-profit organisation that says it is “a global convener of heads of state, government officials, C-suite executives, and leaders of nonprofits, think tanks, and foundations,” help the industry to build credibility and influence by providing it with a platform to promote its narrative. Concordia’s annual events include a summit which takes place in the same week as the United Nations General Assembly. PMI has regularly spoken and led discussions at these events, and has been listed as a “patron member” of Concordia since 2020.
Many of these groups echo tobacco industry arguments, often framing the industry’s policy positions as a matter of public or economic concern. For example, Stop Illegal Trade, a media forum funded by Philip Morris (Pakistan), promotes the misleading message that increases in tobacco excise tax have resulted in marked increases in illicit trade in Pakistan. This supports industry efforts to lobby against further tax increases that would help reduce tobacco use in a country that is among the world’s largest consumers of tobacco. The Australian Association of Convenience Stores, a retail association which has accepted funding from tobacco companies over at least two decades, also regularly lobbies against tobacco control policies. For instance, it has argued that plain packaging has not been effective and has fuelled illicit tobacco trade, despite data showing that the policy has reduced smoking and exposure to secondhand smoke and there is no evidence that the availability or use of illicit tobacco has changed.
The allies included in the STOP Tobacco Industry Allies database likely represent only a fraction of those acting on behalf of the industry. However, the more groups that are exposed, the easier it is for policymakers to identify industry allies and untangle the hidden conflicts of interest that allow business and policy environments to remain tobacco friendly, in spite of the clear, urgent need to reduce tobacco use globally.
Conflicts of interest: None.
Funding: The authors are members of the Tobacco Control Research Group at the University of Bath, a partner in STOP, which is funded by Bloomberg Philanthropies.