More than 100 free-market thinktanks from North America to Europe and south Asia took positions helpful to the tobacco industry or accepted donations, Guardian investigation shows
Authors: Jessica Glenza
Free-market thinktanks around the world provide a powerful voice of support to cigarette manufacturers in battles against tougher regulations, a Guardian investigation shows.
The tobacco industry has long been treated as a pariah by many governments and officials because its products kill more than 7 million people per year.
But the industry has found support from free-market thinktanks, including from some of the most prestigious.
At least 106 thinktanks in two dozen countries have accepted donations from tobacco companies, argued against tobacco control policies called for by the World Health Organization (WHO), or both, according to a detailed Guardian analysis published today.
Public health experts say tough controls save lives.
The groups examined by the Guardian have, variously, opposed plain cigarette packaging, written to regulators in support of new tobacco products, or promoted industry-funded research. In one extreme case, an Africa-based thinktank questioned whether the link between cancer and smoking “was yet to be empirically established”, before backing away from the claim.
Patricio Marquez, lead specialist on health global practice at the World Bank, said such activity could impact public health efforts. The thinktanks “have created an arsenal of evidence in order to influence policy-making and decision-making”, he said.
The Guardian examined one of the largest networks of independent free-market thinktanks in the world, organized by Atlas Network, a not-for-profit based near Washington DC in Arlington, Virginia, which it says “connects a global network of more than 475 independent, civil society organizations in over 90 countries to the ideas needed to advance freedom”.
In this network more than a fifth either argued against controls in some way, took industry donations, or both. Additionally:
Donations from tobacco industry
At least 53 free-market thinktanks accepted donations from major tobacco companies, according to tobacco companies documents and disclosures made to the Guardian. When asked, most thinktanks declined or failed to respond to requests to disclose donors.
Opposition to tobacco taxes
At least 25 free-market thinktanks opposed tobacco taxes, arguing they were “ineffective”, regressive or increased smuggling. In some cases, anti-tax campaigns are extensive, even though experts said taxes “are widely recognised as the most effective means” to reduce smoking.
Plain packaging opposition
At least 30 free-market thinktanks were among 47 signatories to a letter from thinktanks to the WHO opposing plain packaging in 2016. And at least 14 free-market thinktanks wrote to the FDA in support of a Philip Morris International application to sell its IQOS devices in the US.
Philip Morris International, British American Tobacco (BAT), Japan Tobacco, Altria and Reynolds American all have donated to free-market thinktanks analyzed by the Guardian. In responses from manufacturers, they strongly disputed any suggestion donations could influence thinktank output.
Some of the thinktanks are highly influential in their countries and well-connected, and some have received funding from diplomatic outposts. In the US, the Heritage Foundation, Cato Institute and Americans for Tax Reform all accepted donations from the tobacco industry and went on to comment on tobacco policy. In the UK, the Adam Smith Institute and the Institute of Economic Affairs did the same.
For example, the Heritage Foundation accepted donations from US Marlboro maker Altria in 2012, 2013, 2014 and 2016. In 2018, a Heritage scholar testified before the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) in favor of the new Philip Morris International product IQOS, which heats but does not burn tobacco, arguing it had an “impressive track record”.
A man smokes in Lahore, Pakistan, one of more than 20 countries where thinktanks took positions aligned with the tobacco industry. Warrick Page/Getty
In responses to questions from the Guardian, the thinktanks said they are fiercely independent, unswayed by any donations, and they argue pro-business, low regulation and taxation positions as part of a broader free market philosophy. Some said they were not against all tobacco controls, hailed the rise of e-cigarettes in wealthier markets and said they were against “regressive” taxation on cigarettes they said hurts those on low incomes.
Thinktanks exist to influence policy, often through policy guidance seen as independent of the interests of business and politics. Unlike lobbyists, thinktanks are not obligated to disclose their funding. However, the thinktank world has come under scrutiny in recent years, as donations from foreign governments and corporations came to light.
In some cases, thinktanks appeared to operate like an echo chamber, with organizations within the network supporting one another’s research to reach similar conclusions.
Patricio Marquez of the World Bank said: “Besides [tobacco] marketing and advertising, which is geared to generate consumption, you have this additional [thinktank] mechanism that is used to influence policy-making in a manner that will protect the interests of the industry.
“Freedom of speech needs to be respected as long as everything is transparent,” said Marquez. “In that way, everybody is aware who you are representing. In the same way we do when we receive grants.”
Free-market thinktanks took positions aligned with the tobacco industry in countries including the US, UK, Canada, Croatia, Czech Republic, France, Germany, Georgia, Ireland, Spain, Serbia, Argentina, Chile, Peru, Honduras, Venezuela, India, Nepal, Pakistan, Ghana, South Africa, Japan, Australia and New Zealand.
The Guardian found the following:
In Ghana, the executive director of a free-market thinktank argued in 2013 that the link between cancer and smoking “was yet to be empirically established”, a claim the organization backed away from when questioned by the Guardian. The group was also part of an organized group which opposed plain packaging. In filings to the WHO, Ghana’s health department said civil society groups cited the thinktank as one which “fronts for the tobacco industry”. The group told the Guardian it accepted donations from the tobacco industry about four years ago.
In Malaysia, a free-market thinktank called the Institute for Democracy and Economic Affairs (Ideas) argued against plain packaging and a proposed tobacco tax hike. The tax hike ultimately failed, as members of government cited concerns pushed by the thinktank about growth in smuggling. Public health experts said tobacco companies exaggerate the link between illicit trade and tobacco taxes. The thinktank disclosed in annual financials it received donations from the tobacco industry. Ideas said it follows “a strict policy of editorial independence” and that it did not consider its reliance on tobacco-funded research relevant.
In Chile, a thinktank argued against new smoking restrictions, including an indoor smoking ban. Local journalists later obtained leaked documents which revealed the group was funded in part by BAT. BAT told the Guardian it funded the organization by buying reports, which any company can do.
Not all of the groups in the network that the Guardian analyzed are active in tobacco policy, and some have done so in isolated instances. Some thinktanks issue policy papers around climate change skepticism, private education, pharmaceutical patent protections, energy deregulation and other conservative causes. In India, the Guardian found one thinktank that made statements aligned with public health experts’ proposals for tobacco control.
Atlas Network promotes its 475 “partner” thinktanks around the world, publicising campaigns and events on various issues, and providing some of this network with awards, grants and training.
The bulk of Atlas’s work is unrelated to tobacco policy – in December 2018, for instance, the group promoted an American college student fighting to distribute the US constitution in Spanish; and criticized a retail tax in Slovakia.
It has, however, taken donations from tobacco firms in recent years and historically, and some Atlas partner thinktanks which have received grants have supported issues helpful to cigarette manufacturers. Some have also themselves taken tobacco industry donations.
In December, Atlas Network promoted on its website the opening of a branch of the Consumer Choice Center in Brazil, which Atlas said had opened in response to the Brazilian congress calling for plain packaging of cigarette packs.
In another example, Atlas Network donated to the Institute for Democracy and Economic Affairs in Malaysia, which opposed plain packaging there. At the same time, the Malaysian thinktank was funded by local subsidiaries of Philip Morris and Japan Tobacco.
Atlas Network accepted donations from BAT in 2015 and 2016, and from JTI-Macdonald Corp, Japan Tobacco’s Canadian subsidiary, in 2016. Its 2017 annual report showed no tobacco company contributions.
In many regions, Atlas’s grant-making to various groups, including those not involved in tobacco policy, has grown rapidly in the last five years. In Central America and the Caribbean, giving grew 6,000% in the last five years, from $14,500 in 2013 to $881,999 in 2017. In sub-Saharan Africa, Atlas more than doubled grant-making to $360,000 from 2013 to 2017.
“We definitely see there’s a growth of thinktanks in the developing world,” said Julia Smith, a research associate at Simon Fraser University in Canada who studies tobacco control and industry interference.
Other researchers, such as Nobel prize-winning economist George Akerlof, said the growth of thinktanks aligned with the tobacco industry in the developing world “is exactly in line with what we would have expected” given the decline in smoking in the west.
The Guardian has contacted Atlas Network multiple times for comment but received no response.
The world of thinktanks
Researchers who study tobacco industry influence said organizations on both ends of the political spectrum have accepted tobacco donations, including civil rights groups and art organizations in the US.
However, experts in tobacco influence said tobacco companies have recently favored libertarian and free market organizations, especially since the emergence of the American Tea Party movement about a decade ago.
“We definitely see there’s a growth of thinktanks in the developing world”
– Julia Smith
“These tobacco companies and other big businesses are not philanthropists and give money” in the hope of impacting policy debates, said Stan Glantz, who heads the University of California San Francisco’s tobacco document library, and has extensively research tobacco industry influence. Glantz argues that the industry has sought to influence a wide range of groups but has found most success with those supporting free-market and libertarian values. “[The] ones that seem to most directly meet their needs on these things seem to be these libertarian groups”.
In most cases, the Guardian relied on tobacco companies to disclose donations to thinktanks, rather than by the thinktanks themselves. Thinktanks are not obligated to disclose donors in the US, or in most countries around the world. Atlas Network voluntarily discloses names of donors, but not the amount of their donations.
Manufacturers denied there was anything problematic about the behavior of thinktanks backing positions helpful to the industry. Altria, Philip Morris International, British American Tobacco (BAT), RJ Reynolds and Japan Tobacco International all donated to free-market thinktanks in the last decade.
Philip Morris International told the Guardian “ideas are not for sale”, a sentiment echoed by other tobacco companies. “We have worked, and will continue to work, with carefully selected organizations around the world who share our desire to promote policies that produce meaningful public health improvements,” PMI, the maker of Marlboro cigarettes, said. “It is absolutely ridiculous to imply that supporting an organization would result in a group taking action they otherwise would fundamentally oppose.””
“Claims that our contributions to organizations committed to advancing positive change in public health create a conflict of interest cannot withstand any reasonable scrutiny, are irrational, and wrong,” the company said.
Japan Tobacco International said: “Various groups across the world share our view that any regulation, tobacco-related or not, if untested and unproven, could have seriously negative knock-on effects.”
People smoke cigarettes at a smoking booth on a street in Tokyo. Issei Kato/Reuters
The company continued: “It is clear to everyone that there are health risks associated with smoking – we are fully transparent about this. And, as such, it is important that tobacco products are regulated.”
BAT told the Guardian: “Like many other companies, we support like-minded organisations on issues that are important to our business and our consumers.
“We believe publicly elected officials should be allowed to hear all sides of any debate when formulating policy and should be trusted to make informed decisions once they have heard and considered all the arguments,” the company said.
Altria, the US maker of Marlboro cigarettes and donor to dozens of North American thinktanks, said: “Like most major corporations, Altria and its companies support and are members of policy-oriented organizations focused on issues that affect our business.
“These organizations, which include trade associations and other membership organizations, engage in activities such as educational initiatives, professional development and training, public policy research and outreach, and direct or grassroots lobbying,” the company said. “We develop and maintain partnerships with third-party organizations on issues important to our companies and that independently research, communicate and advocate on those issues.”
Reynolds American Incorporated did not respond to Guardian requests for comment.