Analysis of 15,000+ previously unseen internal tobacco industry documents reveals that British American Tobacco (BAT), one of the UK’s 10 biggest companies, had a ‘clear advocacy strategy to influence the Protocol [to Eliminate Illicit Trade in Tobacco Products] text’. The Protocol is a global treaty designed to stamp out tobacco products being traded illegally. The analysis also shows that BAT collaborated with other tobacco companies to try and secure this influence.

Industry involvement in illicit trade

For decades, there has been overwhelming evidence that transnational tobacco companies have had a hand in the illegal trade of their own products, which benefits them financially. The Protocol is in part a coordinated international response to that.

With focus shifting from environmental concerns (COP26) to the devastation caused by the tobacco industry (COP9, 8-13 November and MOP2, 15-18 November), the findings could not be more timely. At MOP2, Parties to the Protocol will progress its implementation, including by moving forward plans for a global tobacco tracking and tracing system.

Weakened regulations

The research, conducted by the Tobacco Control Research Group (TCRG) at the University of Bath, shows that BAT obtained drafts of the Protocol before they were made public, and paid at least one government delegate to support the company’s position during the negotiations.

The research reveals that BAT had several goals when trying to influence the Protocol. For example, its internal documents suggest that it was generally pleased with the final text of the Protocol as it was ‘much less prescriptive’ than earlier drafts – this would allow it to ‘shape implementation at the national level’. BAT’s broad satisfaction with much of the final text of the Protocol has led the authors to ask whether the current regulations go far enough.

Internal documents from Philip Morris International, another major tobacco company, show that the company shared BAT’s views on several issues, according to the analysis. These include opposing a ban on duty-free sales, which would reduce their profits, and on ‘intermingling’ (transporting tobacco products in the same container as non-tobacco products), likely because this would increase their shipping costs.

Industry interference in policy making

This new evidence follows recent revelations by the same research team, and featured in a recent BBC Panorama programme, that accused BAT of corruption and bribery in Southern Africa, and potential complicity in the illicit tobacco trade. This new research highlights how challenging it is to fully exclude the tobacco industry from policy making, and to measure its influence in such processes.

Although this analysis of internal BAT documents shows that BAT gained access to confidential documents and influenced at least one delegate, given its size as one of the world's largest tobacco companies, the full extent of its influence over the Protocol is likely still concealed.

Benoît Gomîs, lead author on the paper, said:

Our analysis of internal BAT documents indicates that the company was largely successful in weakening the Protocol to Eliminate Illicit Trade in Tobacco Products – including through interfering with delegations, obtaining early drafts, and paying at least one delegate. BAT effectively managed to minimize the costs it would have incurred with a stronger Protocol. This clearly shows the need to prevent industry interference in anti-illicit trade policies and law enforcement strategies, and in the creation and development of future treaties to address other health harms.

Dr Allen Gallagher, another of the paper's authors said:

Our findings emphasise the need for governments to be alert to potential tobacco industry influence over policy measures, including those related to illicit tobacco trade. At the same time, they also demonstrate how challenging this can be, given the hidden nature of much of this influence. As such, monitoring and exposing of tobacco company efforts and strategies to engage in policy processes is crucial to ensuring positive public health outcomes.