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British American Tobacco’s tactics during China’s accession to the World Trade Organization


Background: China entered the World Trade Organization (WTO) in 2001 after years of negotiations. As a WTO member, China had to reduce tariffs on imported cigarettes and remove non-tariff barriers to allow foreign cigarettes to be more competitive in the Chinese market. Among foreign tobacco companies, British American Tobacco (BAT) was the most active lobbyist during China’s WTO negotiations.

Objective: To review and analyse BAT’s tactics and activities relating to China’s entry into the WTO.

Methods: Internal tobacco industry documents were reviewed and are featured here. Industry documents were searched mainly on the website of BAT’s Guildford Depository and other documents’ websites. 528 documents were evaluated and 142 were determined to be relevant to China’s entry into the WTO.

Results: BAT was extremely active during the progress of China’s entry into the WTO. The company focused its lobbying efforts on two main players in the negotiations: the European Union (EU) and the US. Because of the negative moral and health issues related to tobacco, BAT did not seek public support from officials associated with the WTO negotiations. Instead, BAT lobbyists suggested that officials protect the interests of BAT by presenting the company’s needs as similar to those of all European companies. During the negotiation process, BAT officials repeatedly spoke favourably of China’s accession into the WTO, with the aim of presenting BAT as a facilitator in this process and of gaining preferential treatment from their Chinese competitor.

Conclusions: BAT’s activities clearly suggest that tobacco companies place their own interests above public health interests. Today, China struggles with issues of tobacco control that are aggravated by the aggressive practices of transnational tobacco companies, tobacco-tariff reductions and the huge number of smokers. For the tobacco-control movement to progress in China, health advocates must understand how foreign tobacco companies have undermined anti-tobacco activities by taking advantage of trade liberalisation policies. China should attach importance to public health and comprehensive tobacco-control policies and guarantee strong protection measures from national and international tobacco interests supported by international trade agreements.

  • BAT, British American Tobacco
  • CNTC, China National Tobacco Corporation
  • EU, European Union
  • TTC, transnational tobacco company
  • USTR, United States trade representative
  • WTO, World Trade Organization

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