Our work on corporate influence and policy evaluation falls under six broad themes.
Science and policy
Companies producing unhealthy goods (alcohol, tobacco) continuously attempt to influence both the policy environment and scientific research, to prevent regulation that might limit the availability or accessibility of their products. Our group examines corporate political activities, seeks to map and categorise corporate influences on policy and science (with a growing focus on low-and-middle income countries), and investigates industry funded groups like the Foundation for a Smoke Free World. We also review and evaluate government policies that are designed to reduce or eliminate the harm caused by tobacco and other unhealthy products, or to limit the influence of the industry on policymaking.
Advocates countering tobacco industry interference
While much research has been done on tobacco industry interference (TII) in tobacco control, far less is known about the efforts of advocates in countering TII and what they need to succeed. To address this gap, we interviewed 22 advocates from eight low-and-middle income countries (LIMCs), where the adoption and implementation of the World Health Organization's Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (FCTC) tends to be slower and weaker than in high-income settings. The work shows that there is growing confidence amongst advocates in addressing TII, and we have also identified initiatives that could strengthen advocates’ efforts.
Marketing and Corporate Social Responsibility
Corporate social responsibility (CSR) strategies are used by companies to enhance their reputation and build relationships with stakeholders, including government and policy makers. CSR programmes may also be used to forge links with policy and other bodies under the guise of creating health partnerships or supporting areas of public concern. Our recent research has examined how the tobacco industry has co-opted the Covid crisis to present itself as a champion of public health. We also look at product advertising and marketing, and how tobacco advertising, promotion and sponsorship is being managed in low- and middle-income countries.
The implementation of plain packaging for cigarettes and loose tobacco was introduced in the UK in 2016 after a ruling in the High Court. The ruling relied partly on two key pieces of peer-reviewed TCRG research to conclude that evidence submitted by the tobacco industry to the public consultation on plain packaging ‘generally fell below best practice’. Read the IPR blog on standardised packaging of tobacco.
We map the tobacco trade across global supply chains, from tobacco cultivation, curing and processing, through cigarette manufacturing and distribution, and on to product use and disposal. Our work in this area covers farming and rural livelihoods, a case study on a state-owned tobacco monopoly, and analysis of products and distribution.
Circumnavigating the UK menthol ban
Menthol cigarettes increase overall smoke intake, but mask early respiratory disease symptoms, reducing the chance of quitting. A ban on the sale of flavoured cigarettes came into force in the UK in May 2016, but menthol accessories were excluded until May 2020. Our research shows how the tobacco industry introduced diverse new products to the UK that get around the ban, including menthol accessories sold separately from cigarette packs. It has also used the ban to promote more profitable heated tobacco products, which, unlike quitting, are not risk-free. Read the full paper in Tobacco Control.
Taxation, pricing and illicit trade
We investigate bribery and corruption within the tobacco industry, including industry involvement in the illicit tobacco trade. Evidence points to a long history of tobacco companies facilitating the smuggling of their own products. At the same time, they continually argue against and attempt to circumnavigate tax rises, claiming that these lead to a rise in illicit trade.
Uncovering the tobacco industry’s biggest scam
Research from TCRG, which draws on leaked documents, highlights the lengths the industry has gone to control a global track and trace system and to undermine a major international agreement - the Illicit Trade Protocol - designed to stop the tobacco industry from smuggling tobacco. Researchers have also examined the quality of the data and reports on illicit tobacco that the tobacco industry has funded and found that industry-funded data routinely overestimates levels of tobacco smuggling. Read the blog in Tobacco Control.
Digital research and analysis
We use big data to analyse tobacco industry behaviour, with a focus on online and social media activity. We develop and support the use of digital research methods across TCRG to share expertise within the team.
Using social media to promote a new agenda
The lack of regulation of social media means that it can easily be used by tobacco companies to promote new products and argue against tobacco control. Researchers from TCRG mapped Twitter activity around COP8, a meeting of 182 signatories to the world’s first public health treaty, which aims to curb the harm caused by tobacco. By analysing over 9,000 tweets and retweets with the meeting’s official hashtag, researchers found that Philip Morris International and its allies dominated the meeting Twittersphere. More than half (54%) of the tweets were about ‘next generation products’, a key part of the company’s new product portfolio. Read the full paper in the BMJ journal Tobacco Control.
Emerging areas of research
We are continuing to expand our research focus to include other industries posing a challenge to public health, and to evaluate wider public health policy. We are mapping how corporate political activities influence health policy, and analysing how these relate to economic, political and social factors within society, to understand how it is possible for industry to influence health policy to the extent that it currently does. We are also examining how transparency or anti-corruption mechanisms may help to prevent or mitigate undue industry influence in the policy making process.