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State-ownership of tobacco industry: a ‘fundamental conflict of interest’ or a ‘tremendous opportunity’ for tobacco control?


Despite state-owned tobacco companies (SOTCs) accounting for over 40% of global production, the significance of state-ownership for tobacco control strategies has received limited academic and policy attention. The complex interests associated with SOTCs present diverse challenges for tobacco control policy, particularly in implementing Article 5.3 of WHO's Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (FCTC). Based on a review of existing literature, this paper examines current challenges and potential opportunities presented by governmental participation in the tobacco industry, identifying three contrasting perspectives from academic and policy sources. The first two perspectives centre on recognising that economic interests inherent in an SOTC are in tension with a government's public health responsibilities. This conflict can be perceived as either fundamental and fixed (‘intrinsic conflict’) or as amenable to either exacerbation or amelioration via organisational mechanisms (‘institutionally-mediated conflict’)—as suggested by the contrasting examples of China and Thailand. A third, less prominent perspective (which we refer to as ‘interest alignment’) suggests that it may be possible to radically alter the objectives and behaviour of SOTCs in order to advance tobacco control. Finally, we draw on this analysis to consider policy options for advancing tobacco control in countries with SOTCs. Guidance on implementation of Article 5.3 demonstrates strategic ambiguity by including elements of all three perspectives described above. We argue that legislative separation of tobacco control from SOTC oversight provides a desirable alternative to industry privatisation, and that radically realigning the goals of SOTCs to reduce tobacco consumption could make an important contribution to endgame strategies.

  • Tobacco industry
  • Public policy
  • Global health
  • End game

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