Two new research papers from the Tobacco Control Research Group (TCRG) at the University of Bath examine how corporate narratives from global tobacco companies influence stakeholder perceptions of their activities, and potentially impact public health.

The first paper, published by Frontiers in Public Health, explores and compares the language used by British American Tobacco (BAT) and Philip Morris International (PMI) around harm, harm reduction and terms used to refer to newer nicotine and tobacco products, including electronic cigarettes and heated tobacco products, in company reports published between 2011 and 2021. The second paper, published by PLOS Global Public Health, critically examines PMI’s corporate language and considers how key themes raised in its communications might impact public health debates.

Corporate storytelling is an important tool used by companies not only to explain their decision making to the public, but in efforts to influence policy agendas at local, national and international levels.

The analysis of PMI’s corporate language identifies a technique of dual communication. In public-facing communication, PMI stress its commitment to transformation and change, while in its investor-facing communication, it presents business as usual and a focus on conventional tobacco products. The suggestion is that through its webpage and YouTube content, PMI attempts to neutralise negative public perception of the harms caused by tobacco and to present itself as an advocate of “better” consumer choice, individual freedoms and even public health.

From their analysis of BAT and PMI company reports, the researchers identified themes which, they argue, aim to downplay the tobacco industry’s role in the perpetuation of harms related to tobacco use. They suggest that through corporate messaging, these companies seek to normalise their role in public discussions of health policy, casting themselves as instrumental in addressing tobacco-related inequalities, and shifting responsibility for the continued use of tobacco onto individual consumers.

The researchers argue that these corporate narratives pose a threat to the successful implementation of tobacco control policies at a global scale, and therefore to the reduction of the social and economic costs of tobacco-related diseases.

While tobacco companies may be producing newer products which could, with appropriate regulation, contribute to reducing the harms of tobacco, such products are currently leveraged by the tobacco industry in order to undermine existing tobacco control efforts. The industry’s primary interests – maximising profits from both conventional and newer tobacco products - remain fundamentally opposed to those of public health.

A clear distinction must therefore be made between a product and a producer: a product may play a role in tobacco control, but that does not mean the producer of that product can. As such, Article 5.3 of the WHO Framework Convention on Tobacco Control, which stipulates that tobacco control public health policies should be protected from the “commercial and other vested interests of the tobacco industry”, remains more important than ever.