How is the tobacco industry tackling government attempts to prevent smoking?


meIt is thought that two people in three smokers want to break their deadly habit, and for good reason – they believe that one of their smokers smoke prematurely due to smoking. Worldwide, more than 6 million people are killed each year.

However, the abandonment is known to be difficult. Smoking tobacco is an addiction that the Royal College of Physicians compared in the United Kingdom to heroin and cocaine addiction.

But that does not mean that we can not do anything. Evidence suggests that an increase in tobacco taxation is the most effective way to reduce tobacco use. These taxes, recommended by the World Health Organization and the World Bank, increase the price of tobacco products in stores and reduce their affordability – this is a situation that encourages smokers to quit, and discourage others from starting first.

Taxation is particularly important because people with lower incomes are less responsive to many other tobacco campaigns and regulations designed to encourage abandonment. But such smokers, including many young people, are most sensitive to price increases.

If self-sufficiency was not enough, it is an additional challenge to get rid of the habit that tobacco companies simply do not want the smokers to leave. They do not want to lose their customers and the considerable profits they provide.

It is therefore not surprising that the tobacco industry has a well-documented history of undermining regulations aimed at controlling the use and sale of tobacco for the benefit of public health. For example, the largest tobacco companies continue to market cigarettes to children around the world, even though they have not done so, and often in places where advertising is prohibited. In the United Kingdom, where advertising of tobacco products is prohibited, Philip Morris International has effectively escaped the ban with its recent "cessation of smoking" campaign, which in fact continues to promote its tobacco products.

Paying a great price

While many of these tactics are obvious, some are more difficult to detect. Our most recent research highlights the second – how the tobacco industry shapes price tactics in the United Kingdom, which reduces the predicted impact of public health on increasing tobacco taxes.

Tobacco companies offer a range of cheaper products that help people smoke (and attract new consumers to start), while offering a whole range of products with higher prices so they can actually get on to those who can not or are not ready to leave.

When tobacco taxes increase, they play with their prices to undermine the effects of an increase in smoking taxes. Taking into account tax increases, in particular the cheapest brands, are lagging behind and lagging behind the projected increase in tobacco prices. In this way, the increase in prices is gradually applied to their brand portfolio so that smokers can never face a sudden exit when the government increases taxes.

Further tactics adopted by the industry include shrinkflation – cutting the number of cigarettes in a pack to disguise price rises and prevent the cost of a packet of tobacco being tipped over certain psychological levels.

Reducing the number of cigarettes in a pack from 20 to 19, 18 or even 17, while keeping the price stable means the higher cost per cigarette isn’t immediately obvious to most smokers – and the producer can make greater profits.

The industry also used price marked packaging to limit the ability of retailers to increase their small markup on tobacco sales as a further way of keeping tobacco cheap. Sales of 10-cigarette packs increased and very small packs of loose tobacco (10g or less) were introduced. These small packets appeal to the most price sensitive smokers as they cost less to buy.

Such tactics and small packs have recently been banned in the UK with the introduction of standardised packaging (where tobacco has to be sold in a standardised format with drab packaging) but are still available elsewhere. The UK has also introduced a new minimum excise tax which puts the average price at over £10 for a packet of 20 cigarettes stopping the sale of ultra-cheap mainstream tobacco products.

Ultimately the tobacco industry wouldn’t be manipulating price if it wasn’t so effective in ensuring young people take up smoking and in preventing existing smokers from quitting. So what more can we do?

Stubbing it out

Further restricting industry use of pricing tactics would be a good option. Companies could be limited in the number of brands and brands variants they sell to cut down on the range of prices on offer, and in the number of times they can change prices in order to remove their ability to smooth prices and directly undermine the public health benefits of tax increases.

There is even a case for directly regulating tobacco prices in the same way that prices for public utility services, such as water and electricity are often determined by independent government agencies. Public utilities are important services, which is why the government looks to protect the public from company pricing choices – but then tobacco is a very addictive and deadly product where price matters too.

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Meanwhile, Bloomberg Philanthropies recently announced a $20m (£16m) investment to create Stop (Stopping Tobacco Organisations and Products) – a global tobacco industry watchdog to help expose more of these practices. The Tobacco Control Research Group at the University of Bath is one of three partners funded to lead this initiative.

The public can cannot afford to let the industry operate under the radar when the product they make kills two out of three long term users. This new partnership will serve as a necessary watchdog to expose their deadly tactics.

Anna Gilmore is a professor of public health and director of the Tobacco Control Research Group, J Robert Branston is a senior lecturer in business economics and Rosemary Hiscock is a research associate at the University of Bath. This article first appeared on The Conversation (


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