Friday , October 22 2021

How the tobacco industry blends with the government's attempts to stop people from smoking


It believe that two out of three smokers want to kick their deadly habit, and for good reason the same proportion of them is believed to be too early due to smoking. Around the world, habit vanishes more than 6 million people a year.

But quitting is notoriously difficult. Smoking tobacco is an addictive habit that the UK Royal College of Physicians has resembled heroin and cocaine addiction.

But that does not mean there is nothing we can do. The evidence indicates that the increase in tobacco taxes is the most efficient way of reducing tobacco consumption. These taxes, recommended by the World Health Organization and the World Bank, increase the price of tobacco products in stores, which reduces their affordable prices – a situation that encourages smokers to stop and prevent others from starting in the first place.

Taxation is particularly important because low-income converters are less likely to respond to many other campaigns against tobacco products and regulations aimed at encouraging quitting. But such smokers, including many young people, are most sensitive to price increases.

If abuse alone is not enough, an additional challenge is to kick the habit that tobacco companies simply do not want smokers to quit. They do not want to lose their customers and the big profits they give.

It is therefore unbelievable that the tobacco industry has a well-documented history of undermining provisions aimed at controlling the use and sale of tobacco for the benefit of public health. For example, the largest tobacco companies have continued to market cigarettes to children all over the world even though it is not claimed that they do not, and often in places where advertising is prohibited. In Britain, where tobacco advertising is prohibited, Philip Morris International has effectively circumvented the ban on the recently launched "smoking quit" campaign, which is still still promoting its tobacco products.

Pay a big price

While many of these tactics are obvious, some are more difficult to detect. Our latest research reveals another – how the tobacco industry's pricing tactics in Britain reduce the intended public health impact of tobacco tax increases.

Tobacco companies offer a range of cheaper products to help people smoke (and attract new consumers to start) while offering a series of higher pricing brands to really earn money on those who can not or do not want to quit.

When tobacco taxes increase, they play with their pricing to undermine the effects of tax increases in smoking. They absorb tax increases, especially on the cheapest brands, which delays and stagnates the intended tobacco price increases. In this way, price increases are gradually applied to the brand portfolio to ensure that smokers never face a sudden interrupting price jump when the government increases the tax.

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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