Researchers from the University's Tobacco Control Research Group have called for tougher restrictions on the way tobacco companies use philanthropy for political influence.

Drawing on tobacco industry documents made publicly available by US litigation, researchers have illustrated the wide range of ways in which tobacco companies use charitable donations to change public perceptions and government policy.

The paper, Corporate Philanthropy, Political Influence and Health Policy published in the journal PLOS ONE, focused on the British multinational, British American Tobacco (BAT), the third largest tobacco company by revenue, which has a strong track record of providing money and gifts in kind to a wide variety of organisations.

The researchers found that concerns in the 1990s over increasing efforts by national governments to introduce public smoking restrictions had led to BAT making large, conspicuous donations to education institutions, health organisations and NGOs to increase the company's political influence.

Money was allocated to form partnerships with NGOs in the hope of exploiting links with policy makers and contributing to programmes with a view to entering into direct partnership with government ministries.

The study also found evidence of donations being used to divert attention away from the gravity of the tobacco epidemic by highlighting other risks to health. Support for the Beijing Liver Foundation was designed to raise the profile of hepatitis which BAT considered "should be of greater significance to the (People's Republic of China) and the World Health Organisation" than smoking. The ultimate aim of the donation was to "re-prioritise the agenda" of the Chinese Ministry of Public Health and "divert the public attention from smoking and health issues to liver diseases." Donations aimed at combating the impact of diseases such as malaria, tuberculosis and AIDS in Africa and Asia suggest that the strategy is ongoing.

Its support for scholarships illustrates the long term thinking behind political philanthropy. One report from the late 1990s highlighted the importance of providing finance for overseas postgraduate students as part of a "long-term investment in potential leaders in developing markets", whilst another explained that funding scholarships in tertiary education would create “alumni that will in future be part of the national leadership of the world in which we do business."

Dr Gary Fooks from the Tobacco Control Research Group said: "Our research illustrates why philanthropy represents a such a valuable political tool for contemporary transnational tobacco companies. Philanthropy creates trust and strengthens relationships between companies and officials and, therefore, offsets some of the effects of the industry’s deteriorating reputation. This is likely to enhance firms’ status as credible purveyors of information and augment their information advantage in policy making.

"In low and middle income countries, philanthropy has been used to link BAT to social and economic development while in high income countries, donations to social and economic projects have been aimed at training, economic regeneration, and the alleviation of poverty.

"By linking the industry to development in middle and low income countries, philanthropy has the potential to neutralise on-going work by the World Bank aimed at highlighting the negative social and economic impacts of the tobacco industry."

Dr Fooks said that charitable donations are a form of symbolic communication which have the potential to change perceptions through the associations they create

He said: "BAT's donations on training, economic regeneration, poverty and social exclusion support the company’s efforts to shape the tobacco control agenda in a broadly similar way: by emphasising that the company provides capital for programmes which ameliorate the social effects of de-industrialisation, these types of donations convey the continuing relevance of the company to the long term social and economic success of richer nations.”

Professor Anna Gilmore, also of the Tobacco Control Research Group, added: "The model of tobacco industry philanthropy developed in this study can be used by public health advocates to press for implementation of the Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (FCTC) and provides a basis for analysing the political effects of charitable giving in other industry sectors which have an impact on public health such as alcohol and food.

"The paper provides strong evidence of the need for Parties to the FCTC to ban tobacco industry philanthropy outright."