Targeting LMICs: The Tobacco Industry’s Latest Strategy?

Nearly 80% of the world’s smokers live in low- and middle-income countries (LMICs). This isn’t by chance. The tobacco industry appears to be employing strategies that target people and governments in LMICs to keep the tobacco epidemic going.

While the industry has a playbook of known tactics it uses to protect its profits—ranging from lobbying to litigation and more—new research suggests another tactic exists in LMICs: intimidation of tobacco control advocates.

The preliminary results of this research highlight the concern that intimidation of tobacco control advocates, already documented in some high-income countries (HICs), is present in LMICs and may be evolving. The result? Possible delays in implementing effective tobacco control measures in LMICs, leaving large numbers of people vulnerable to the industry’s predatory business practices.

An evolving tactic: intimidation

Researchers surveyed 23 members of the tobacco control community, most of whom identified as researchers or advocates, in LMICs around the world.

Nearly three-quarters of respondents reported that they or another member of the tobacco control community in their country had experienced intimidation. In some cases, respondents knew the identity of the aggressor. In other cases, especially in anonymous or more covert instances, participants reported being less confident in identifying the aggressor.

Respondents reported experiencing public discreditation on social and traditional media, legal threats and non-anonymous intimidating messages. Less frequent incidents of cyberattacks, theft, anonymous intimidating messages and physical intimidation were reported, as well.

Notably, 15 of the survey respondents reported that intimidation has evolved, with 10 of those 15 saying it has intensified. The researchers highlight that online platforms, particularly social media, have become a common avenue for intimidation.

Maintaining the large number of tobacco users in LMICs and the potential to gain even more could be the industry’s prime motive for targeting its tactics at these countries.

Is intimidation the tobacco industry’s latest strategy when targeting LMICs?

In addition to possible intimidation, LMICs are facing a barrage of industry tactics aimed at protecting profits.

Among the worst is the industry’s attempts to hook young people in LMICs on its addictive products. A primary way to appeal to young people is through flavored products, and researchers have deemed flavored tobacco a “growing menace” in LMICs. New research shows a concerning increase in market share growth of flavored tobacco in LMICs, following flavor bans in the EU and Canada. The researchers note this increase in market share may have been a result of intensified marketing efforts in LMICs following these higher-income regions’ flavor bans. Tobacco companies have also fought against flavored tobacco bans in LMICs.

The industry also finds ways to pay less in taxes to governments in LMICs. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), tobacco taxes are the most cost-effective way to reduce tobacco use, especially among young people and people living on low-incomes. Yet, in 2021, Japan’s Ambassador to Bangladesh lobbied on behalf of Japan Tobacco International, sending a letter to Bangladesh’s Finance Minister criticizing the country’s recent tax increase and warning that Japanese investors were “carefully watching.” Further, the 2021 Global Tobacco Industry Interference Index reported that the industry successfully defeated tax increases in Ethiopia, Malaysia, Paraguay and Tanzania. And in Lao PDR, Imperial Brands signed a 25-year agreement with the government in 2001 that significantly reduced tobacco tax rates to below those required by the country’s tax law. And a 2019 report by Tax Justice Network also documents how British American Tobacco has worked to reduce its tax contributions to LMICs across Africa, Asia, Latin America and the Caribbean.

Why does the tobacco industry target LMICs?

The industry may see LMICs as growth opportunities—places where conditions may be right to hook more users, especially as stricter regulations and decreasing sales in some HICs could hurt industry profits.

While the percentage of people who use tobacco has historically been lower in LMICs than in HICs, the actual number of tobacco users in LMICs remains very high, measuring into the tens of millions. And as Action on Smoking and Health has pointed out, relatively high population growth and economic growth in some LMICs could be conducive to an increase in smoking rates. The tobacco industry appears to have taken notice of this. Maintaining the large number of tobacco users in LMICs and the potential to gain even more could be the industry’s prime motive for targeting its strategies at these countries.

15 of the survey respondents reported that intimidation has evolved, with 10 of those 15 saying it has intensified.

Why we need strong tobacco control in LMICs

The effects of tobacco use are the same anywhere: sicker people, damage to the environment, the perpetuation of poverty… the list goes on. But these results hit LMICs harder. Generally, LMICs have less health care infrastructure to care for those suffering from tobacco-related diseases. Tobacco use is also known to perpetuate cycles of poverty, with money for essentials like food and housing costs being spent on tobacco products instead.

This makes LMICs an important focal point in the fight to reduce tobacco use. Intimidation of the tobacco control community, alongside the industry’s established tactics, pose a serious threat to tobacco control progress, and therefore public health, in LMICs.

Fully implementing the WHO Framework Convention on Tobacco Control is an important first step in protecting policies and people from the industry’s tactics. The tobacco control community, as a whole, must also continue to speak out against the industry’s attempts to derail policies and harm public health. Knowing about these tobacco industry strategies is the first step toward stopping them.