An extensive lobbying effort by the tobacco industry is revealed in a paper by researchers at the University of Bath (UK), published today in Tobacco Control.

It shows that two thirds (66%) of submissions to an EU consultation about a tobacco tracking system were from companies with financial links to the tobacco industry. Yet, more than one in five (22%) of them did not declare the link.

Shortcomings in the EU’s transparency requirements for public consultations allowed the tobacco industry to exploit the process in this way.

Trade associations linked to tobacco industry

Specifically, trade associations that represent tobacco companies were able to make submissions without revealing who their members were. Almost nine in 10 (85%) of the trade associations who took part had financial links to the tobacco industry.

One of these, Business Action to Stop Counterfeiting and Piracy (BASCAP) – which has tobacco giants British American Tobacco (BAT) and Philip Morris International (PMI) as members – lobbied against plain packaging in Australia and the EU. It did not mention, neither in its submission nor in the EU transparency register, that its members included tobacco companies.

Tracking tobacco products through the supply chain

The consultation was on how a system called ‘track and trace’ should operate in the EU. In brief, the system applies unique IDs to cigarettes and other tobacco products. These IDs can be tracked through every single link in the supply chain. If the products are found being sold illegally, they can be traced back to the point of entry.

The consultation was dominated by the largest tobacco companies in the world. Imperial Tobacco, Japan Tobacco International (JTI) and PMI submitted responses directly, and also indirectly via trade associations. BAT did not submit its own response but was the most represented by submissions from trade associations.

Of 74 trade associations with a financial link to the tobacco industry, BAT was a member of the most (22), followed by JTI (20), PMI (19) and Imperial Tobacco (17).

Transparency loophole

This transparency loophole meant that the views of major tobacco companies were represented multiple times, but crucially not always openly and transparently, thereby skewing the consultation heavily in favour of the tobacco industry.

For example, by analysing the answers to the consultation’s 28 multiple choice questions, the researchers found that, in one instance, a tobacco company’s (JTI) responses were exact matches with 38 other respondents. Of these respondents, 29 were found to have had financial links to the tobacco industry.

Furthermore, the authors found that, collectively, respondents with a financial link to the tobacco industry wanted the system to be completely controlled by the industry. This would be a major breach of an international treaty on illicit tobacco trade which does not allow key responsibilities to be delegated to the tobacco industry.

EU track and trace

The EU’s track and trace system came into effect in May 2019 and is the largest example of its kind anywhere in the world. The consultation was the first one on track and trace to make the responses publicly available.

Of all the respondents, the United Kingdom was the most represented country (23), followed by Poland (20), Spain (19) and Germany (17). Countries with the highest number of respondents identified as having financial links to the tobacco industry were Spain (15), Germany (13), and Greece and the UK (both 12).

University of Bath research

The lead author of the paper, Dr Allen Gallagher from the Tobacco Control Research Group at the University of Bath, the research partner in the global tobacco industry watchdog STOP, explained:

'The EU’s public consultation on tracking and tracing is a clear example of the tobacco industry creating the impression of majority support for a policy that favours tobacco industry interests. This was often achieved in a way that was not transparent.'

'This should be a cautionary tale to governments around the world working on developing their own track and trace system.'

His co-author Dr Karen Evans-Reeves, also of the Tobacco Control Research Group and STOP, added:

'The “Better Regulation” regulatory reforms promoted by the European Commission favour business-friendly policy proposals and were extensively shaped and lobbied for by British American Tobacco.'

'This is an issue that the European Commission should resolve by strengthening the EU transparency register’s code of conduct to require that organisations fully disclose who their members are and who they hold memberships with.'

Anca Toma, the director of Smoke Free Partnership in Brussels, added:

'What we learnt from this study is that policy makers must be vigilant.'

'First, it is obvious that the tobacco industry has a stake in being involved in policies against illicit trade, and it wants to keep as much control as it can over them.'

'Second, our experience in the last few years is that business coalitions “against illicit trade” tend to be financially linked to the tobacco industry.'

'Third, let this be a warning sign to policy makers ahead of next year’s implementation review of the tobacco products directive and revision of the tax directive: the tobacco industry will stop at nothing, spare no expense, to prevent strong policies from being adopted so it can keep marketing its deadly product.'

About the paper

Gallagher AWA, Evans-Reeves K, Joshi A, et al. Analysis of submissions to the EU’s public consultation on tobacco traceability and security features. Tobacco Control. Published Online First: 7 October 2020. doi: 10.1136/tobaccocontrol-2020-043875