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Illicit tobacco trade is ‘booming’: UK newspaper coverage of data funded by transnational tobacco companies
  1. Karen Evans-Reeves,
  2. Jenny Hatchard,
  3. Andy Rowell,
  4. Anna B Gilmore
  1. Tobacco Control Research Group, Department for Health, University of Bath, Bath, UK
  1. Correspondence to Dr Karen Evans-Reeves, Tobacco Control Research Group, Department for Health, University of Bath, Bath BA2 7AY, UK; k.a.evans-reeves{at}


Background Transnational tobacco companies (TTCs) have heavily publicised their argument that standardised tobacco packaging will increase the illicit tobacco trade. Leaked Philip Morris International (PMI) documents suggest that the company may have intended to use third parties to promulgate this argument in the UK.

Methods We examined articles in UK newspapers (1 April 2013 to 31 March 2015) from LexisNexis for presence and nature of tobacco industry data. We also examined documents released by Freedom of Information requests made to Scottish Councils for evidence of how PMI operationalised its third-party strategy.

Findings Two-thirds of newspaper articles (63%, 99/157) mentioned a PMI consultant; 36% of which did not disclose this industry funding. Most articles mentioned counterfeit tobacco, illicit whites or both (72%, 113/157), while few (4%, 7/157) specifically mentioned tobacco industry illicit tobacco and none explained that the latter can include tobacco-company involvement. Freedom of Information documents revealed that the PMI consultant sought to build relationships with Trading Standards officers, conducted undercover test purchases (UTPs) in illicit tobacco ‘hotspots’ and may have promoted unrepresentative findings in the media. While the data set featured PMI data predominantly, other TTCs also engaged in third-party techniques to promulgate messages on illicit tobacco.

Interpretation PMI engaged a third party, seemingly with the aim of securing media coverage on illicit tobacco positing that standardised packaging would worsen the problem. The predominant focus of articles which featured industry-funded data and information was on counterfeit tobacco despite official data showing tobacco-industry illicit tobacco as the most prevalent. Other jurisdictions considering the policy should anticipate that third parties will promote the illicit-trade argument.

  • Illegal tobacco products
  • Media
  • Tobacco industry

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  • Contributors KER, AG and AR conceived the idea for the study. AR and KER coded newspaper articles for relevance. JH and KER coded the characteristics of the newspaper articles. KER performed the analysis and wrote the manuscript. All authors reviewed the publication.

  • Funding This study was Supported by Cancer Research UK Tobacco Advisory Group.

  • Disclaimer Prior to publication, BMJ Publishing Group, the publisher of Tobacco Control, contacted the consultant referred to in this paper. The consultant told us that his research methods were appropriate and followed Home Office guidelines for test purchasing, and that information provided to the media was correct. He also stated that it was right and proper to focus on areas likely to produce positive results in carrying out the test purchase activities.

  • Competing interests None declared.

  • Patient consent for publication Not required.

  • Provenance and peer review Not commissioned; externally peer reviewed.

  • Data availability statement Data are available upon reasonable request.

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