New research from the Tobacco Control Research Group at the University of Bath shows the wide range of ways in which tobacco control advocates and researchers from around the world face intimidation and suggests actions that could be taken to better support them.

The study, published in the journal Globalization and Health, looks at intimidation experienced by advocates and researchers working in the field of tobacco control. This ranges from social media and media attacks, legal threats, theft and, in extreme cases, death threats.

For the study, 29 individuals shared their experiences through participation in a focus group and in semi-structured interviews. The study also underlines how intimidation is driving away talented individuals from tobacco control. As a participant stated:

[Talented researchers] go to other areas where they are safe.

The researchers behind the paper call for the Parties to the WHO Framework Convention on Tobacco Control, the international tobacco control treaty, to recognise that intimidation is a real challenge for tobacco control progress and to consider actions to protect those working on achieving the aims of the treaty.

Lead researcher Dr Britta Matthes comments:

We hope that the study will make members of the tobacco control community who experience intimidation aware that they are not alone and empower them to raise their voice or take other actions in response.

Anecdotal evidence suggests that similar intimidation is experienced by researchers and advocates working on other unhealthy commodities such as alcohol and unhealthy food or gambling. Looking beyond tobacco control for examples of how to respond to threats is a crucial way to address intimidation. For example, in the area of Human Rights, researchers and advocates can draw on the UN Declaration on Human Rights Defenders and there are some reporting and monitoring initiatives and emergency support funding schemes.

Other actions participants proposed include increased reporting and monitoring of intimidation and preparing individuals through awareness raising and training. TCRG’s own Tobacco Industry Monitoring, Research and Accountability Training (TIMRA) programme is one initiative that can bring together individuals working in this area and allow them to share experiences.

The findings build upon earlier work by the same researchers which focussed on the intimidation of advocates and researchers in low- and middle-income countries.