Beware of Tobacco Industry Funding

How transnational tobacco companies are rebranding themselves as legitimate policy actors on illicit trade.

by Dec 1, 2017

Transnational tobacco companies (TTCs) have a history of funding and commissioning research to serve their own interests that are at odds with good governance, public health, and social and economic progress.

Through its IMPACT programme, Philip Morris International (PMI) has been funding research on tackling the illicit trade and related crimes. Launched in 2016, the initiative will provide US$100 million in its first three rounds of grants “to support public, private, and non-governmental organizations to develop and implement projects” on those issues. In the first round, 32 projects focusing on the illicit trade and crimes in the European Union, including the links between terrorism and organized crime, were selected and awarded a combined US$28 million. PMI IMPACT also recently funded a conference hosted by the Financial Times on ‘Combating Illicit Trade’, gathering senior representatives from academia, governments, international organizations, and the private sector.

At first glance, this might seem like welcome news for researchers across the world. More research is indeed needed on such important issues as organized crime, corruption, terrorism, money laundering, as well as the illicit trade of cigarettes and other commodities, and their implications for public safety, public health, and governance. Moreover, securing research funding from the few government departments, NGOs, or international organizations willing and able to fund this type of work can be a labour-intensive and cumbersome process with low odds of success.

But researchers on terrorism and other types of crime should steer clear of tobacco industry funding. Transnational tobacco companies (TTCs) have a history of funding and commissioning research to serve their own interests that are at odds with good governance, public health, and social and economic progress. In particular, TTCs have funded external research for three main purposes.

First, TTCs have used research funding as a way to divert attention away from more important problems. These include the industry’s own role in the illicit trade: TTCs have been complicit in the illicit tobacco trade in order to evade taxes and increase consumption, maintain market share, enter new markets, and lobby for reduced taxation. As internal tobacco industry documents have demonstrated, TTCs have misled the public about the harms caused by their products that every year lead to 7 million deaths worldwide. They have used corporate social responsibility (CSR) initiatives and funding for scientific research to redirect policy efforts towards other health causes unrelated to tobacco – including HIV/AIDS, to “drive a wedge between anti-groups”, and ultimately to fight against tobacco control measures that have proved effective in reducing smoking prevalence and saving lives, including restrictions on advertising and promotion, and the introduction of plain and standardized packaging.

Second, the tobacco industry manages to control much of the policy discourse on the illicit tobacco trade. A study conducted by my colleagues Julia Smith, Sheryl Thompson and Kelley Lee published in Cogent Social Sciences and entitled ”Death and taxes: the framing of the causes and policy responses to the illicit tobacco trade in Canadian newspapers” found that 70% of newspaper articles on the illicit tobacco trade quoted sources with links to the industry, including consultancy firms commissioned by the industry, think tanks, the Canadian Convenience Store Association and National Coalition Against Contraband Tobacco – all of which receive industry funding. The lack of independent data makes it very difficult for the public and policy makers to get a clear understanding of the illicit tobacco trade landscape in Canada. In an international context marked by little funding available from more reliable and independent sources on the illicit tobacco trade and related activities, commissioning and funding new research on those issues is an opportunity for the industry to frame and shape policy discussions.

Third, funding research is also part of a strategy by TTCs to rebrand themselves as legitimate stakeholders in policy making, in the aftermath of major lawsuits against them since the late 1990s. As a US State Department report notes, the tobacco industry now also “assists law enforcement by authenticating products, providing training, and providing information to assist governments and law enforcement”. In other words, countries and international organizations across the world currently partner with the tobacco industry on how to tackle the illicit activities they themselves were found complicit in. Other industry-led initiatives (e.g. Codentify, Inexto) also run the risk of letting the “industry in by the back door”. Similarly, tobacco harm reduction strategies and the PMI-funded Foundation for a Smoke-Free World have been met with widespread scepticism.

“There is a fundamental and irreconcilable conflict between the tobacco industry’s interests and public health policy interests.”

Some researchers might object that a) they might as well use some of the industry’s record profits to good use (the six largest tobacco companies outside of China combined for $US661bn in value in 2016, according to Statista), b) the funding source does not have any impact on their research, or c) that TTCs should be forgiven for past behaviour. The problem with that line of thinking is that by accepting funding from tobacco companies, researchers help legitimize and serve the interests of an industry that ultimately kills almost half of its users. Through research funding, CSR, partnerships with governments, and other charitable activities, TTCs have managed to improve their corporate image despite the lack of substantial changes in their activities.

As the World Health Organization (WHO) warns, “There is a fundamental and irreconcilable conflict between the tobacco industry’s interests and public health policy interests.” Researchers on the illicit trade, terrorism, and other types of crime would do well to follow that sound principle, and stay away from tobacco industry funding.

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This research is part of a multi-year project entitled “Tobacco Companies, Public Policy and Global Health” funded by the U.S. National Cancer Institute, Grant No. R01-CA091021, based at Simon Fraser University. For more information, please visit the SFU Global Tobacco Control programme website.


Benoît Gomis
Benoît Gomis is Senior Fellow, Canadian International Council, and a researcher on organized crime and terrorism. He is a Research Associate at Simon Fraser University where he focuses on the illicit tobacco trade in Latin America and the Caribbean, and an Adjunct Instructor at American University  where he teaches an MA course on Researching Terrorism.
Benoît is also an Associate Fellow with Chatham House, an independent consultant, and the author of Counterterrorism: Reassessing the Policy Response (Taylor & Francis 2015), which he wrote as a visiting scholar at the Canadian Network for Research on Terrorism, Security and Society (TSAS).