Based on testimonies from tobacco control advocates and researchers working in different regions across the globe, the new study from the Tobacco Control Research Group (TCRG) at the University of Bath published in Tobacco Control, indicates that intimidation seems to be happening in a coordinated way, suggesting targeted attacks.

Intimidation tactics observed included media and social media slurs, but also legal cases brought against individuals or organisations as well as more covert tactics. Whilst it was not always possible to identify the source of the intimidation, in certain cases, this was evidenced through legal cases brought against advocates or their organisations, with tobacco companies named as the plaintiff.

The research used a mixture of surveys and interviews. The team interviewed six experts across all World Health Organization (WHO) regions - Africa, the Americas, Eastern Mediterranean, Europe, South-East Asia and Western Pacific. 23 members of the tobacco control community, from 18 countries, completed a questionnaire about their experiences.

Participants were asked about their experiences of ‘intimidation’ - defined as ‘action[s] of frightening or threatening someone, usually to persuade them to do something that [one] want[s] them to do.’ Almost three in four participants reported that they or colleagues (another member of the tobacco control community in their country) had experienced some form of intimidation.

Overt forms of intimidation, aiming to discredit individuals and their work, via social media were experienced most frequently. Legal threats and actions were also commonly reported. More covert forms of intimidation took numerous forms, including threatening messages or cyberattacks, physical intimidation and even violence, burglaries and theft, surveillance, and formal complaints.

Over two-fifths of participants reported either experiencing one or more of these more covert intimidatory tactics directly or were aware that another member of the tobacco control community had been intimidated in one of these ways. Participants expressed that the nature of these attacks suggested a targeted, rather than random approach. One said:

The circumstances, the timing and the methods and the targeting were more what let us... to have the firm conviction that this was not just a random job.

Regardless of the source, intimidatory tactics are resulting in tobacco control work being disrupted and, in some cases, prevented altogether. More than two in three of the participants reported that intimidation affected them and their work. Participants pointed to three main impacts of these tactics.

First, such attacks have an effect at organisational level, taking up valuable time and resources. One said:

I have to spend more time preparing for possible industry attacks when I am proposing an action ... There is a huge quantity of energy spent on dismantling the allegations of the industry.

Second, it limits the ability to work collaboratively with other organisations to advance tobacco control. Another said:

Some ... stakeholders fear being attacked by the [tobacco] industry if they partner with [tobacco control] organisations.

Third, it affects people personally, making them feel uncomfortable and afraid to speak out. One participant said:

I would personally want to have a strong voice and share what I’m sharing in other countries... But I can’t... I’m scared. As a result, some of those working in tobacco control avoid talking about certain topics or leave the field altogether.

Lead researcher Dr Britta Matthes said: ‘We know that the tobacco industry will go to great lengths to protect its business interests. But until now, we haven’t looked closely at how it feels for those individuals working in tobacco control.’

‘What is most concerning about our findings is the impact this has on people’s work and lives. Not only does it limit the work they can do, because of the time and resources taken up with dealing with attacks; it makes people afraid to share their research findings and speak out about what is happening in their country.’

Dr Matthes continued: ‘80% of the world’s smokers live in low- and middle-income countries. An effective and empowered tobacco control community is essential for driving forward policies to reduce smoking. Intimidation hinders the development of these measures, and consequently hampers efforts to protect public health from the harms of tobacco.’

Co-author of the study, Dr Raouf Alebshehy of TCRG explained: ‘This work encourages governments and the tobacco control community to use existing international regulations to help ensure the safety and freedom of speech of public health advocates and researchers.’

Dr Alebshehy continued: ‘I hope that the findings of this preliminary study will encourage more members of the global tobacco control community to collaborate on exposing intimidation and offer support to who experience it.’ He suggests that governments could mandate tools and procedures under the WHO Framework Convention on Tobacco Control, to protect those who are working in this area.

Full paper: Matthes BK, Zatoński M, Alebshehy R, et al. ’To be honest, I’m really scared’: perceptions and experiences of intimidation in the LMIC-based tobacco control community. Tobacco Control. Published Online First: 19 July 2022. doi: 10.1136/tc-2022-057271

Note: We use the definition of the tobacco industry stated in FCTC Article 1(e), where ‘the tobacco industry means tobacco manufacturers, wholesale distributors and importers of tobacco products’.

This research was supported by STOP, a global tobacco industry watchdog. TCRG, part of the University of Bath, is the research partner in STOP, which is funded by Bloomberg Philanthropies. The funder had no role in planning, writing or reviewing this research.