Tobacco is already the world’s leading cause of preventable death, claiming over 5 million lives annually, and this toll is rising. Even though effective tobacco control policies are well researched and widely disseminated, they remain largely unimplemented in most low- and middle-income countries (LMICs). For the most part, control attempts by advocates and government regulators have been frustrated by transnational tobacco companies (TTCs) and their supporters. One reason tobacco is so difficult to control is that its political economy has yet to be adequately understood and addressed. We conducted a review of the literature on tobacco control in LMICs using the databases PubMed, EconLit, PsychInfo and AGRICOLA. Among the over 2500 papers and reports we identified, very few explicitly applied political economy analysis to tobacco control in an LMIC setting. The vast majority of papers characterized important aspects of the tobacco epidemic, including who smokes, the effects of smoking on health, the effectiveness of advertising bans, and the activities of TTCs and their allies. But the political and economic dynamics of policy adoption and implementation were not discussed in any but a handful of papers. To help control advocates better understand and manage the process of policy implementation, we identify how political economy analysis would differ from the traditional public health approaches that dominate the literature. We focus on five important problem areas: information problems and the risks of smoking; the roles of domestic producers; multinational corporations and trade disputes in consumption; smuggling; the barriers to raising taxes and establishing spatial restrictions on smoking; and incentive conflicts between government branches. We conclude by discussing the political economy of tobacco and its implications for control strategies.
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