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Tobacco industry

Smoking tobacco is the number one cause of preventable death in the UK and around the world. Tobacco killed one hundred million people worldwide in the 20th century — and if current trends continue, it will kill one billion people in the 21st century.


Unlike other epidemics such as AIDS or the Ebola virus, this is the result of an industry which has promoted cigarettes as a desirable part of everyday, normal life throughout the 20th century, and now spends large sums of money on expensive branding.


The rise of tobacco and links with the slave trade

Tobacco is thought to have first been brought to Britain in the 1500s.  It had been used in the Americas for centuries before European adventurers brought it home. Increasing demand for tobacco came at a heavy human cost and slave labour was introduced on the expanding American plantations from 1619 and became central to the trade. Cheap and exploited, enslaved workers ensured that plentiful supplies of tobacco reached British shops


Cigarettes were only first mass manufactured centuries later. Production climbed markedly when a cigarette-making machine was developed in the 1880s, providing mass production for new mass markets


The Science Museum gives a great overview of The Rise and Fall of Smoking in Britain.



People who smoke are often not aware that tobacco smoke contains of about 5,000 chemicals. These are inhaled into the lungs, enter the bloodstream and go to organs around the body, including:

• more than 70 cancer-causing chemicals

• poisons such as arsenic, carbon monoxide abd hydrogen cyanide

• nicotine, a highly addictive drug, and many additives designed to make cigarettes taste nicer and keep smokers hooked


Denial of the risks

Even though there were vague links between smoking and health for years and cigarettes known as "coffin nails" by some, the link between smoking and lung cancer was first confirmed in the British Medical Journal in 1950 by physicians (Sir) Richard Doll and Austin Hill, when 80% of British adults smoked. Publicly the tobacco industry continued to deny the link - even though its products caused cancer.


The tobacco industry response to increasing public concern about smoking and health was to introduce low tar, light and mild brands even though these brands were equally harmful to health and subsequently banned as an advertising term in the UK in 2003. A full briefing from 1999 from Dr Martin Jarvis, Imperial Cancer Research Fund and Clive Bates, then Director of Action on Smoking and Health entitled: "Why low tar cigarettes are a deliberate con" can be found here.



Until recently the industry has denied its products are addictive and claims it is a matter of choice, preferring to compare its "addictiveness" to shopping and the Internet. However, the crucial selling point of its product is the chemical dependence of its customers. Without nicotine addiction there would be no tobacco industry.


While rates of smoking have over time levelled off or declined in the developed world, they continue to rise in developing nations.


Illegal tobacco


Tobacco companies have a long history of involvement in smuggling operations. Since 2004, the four major international tobacco companies have paid billions of dollars in fines and payments to settle cigarette smuggling litigation in Europe and Canada.

Despite this, the tobacco industry routinely uses the threat of illicit trade in lobbying against tobacco control measures, including rises in taxation and the introduction of standardised "plain" packaging. A report by Luc Joosens/ CRUK shows how Big Tobacco has used the threat of illegal tobacco to fight standardised packaging.


Link to a news report of the Public Accounts Committee in 2013 accusing the Tobacco Industry of continuing to fuel illegal tobacco through its supply chain practices 


Further links below on how the industry:


Attacks policy: the industry devotes vast resources into trying to influence government policy around the world and prevent health from overruling the interests of profit. The ASH publication The Smoke Filled Room highlights how big tobacco tries to influence policy in the UK, while  the Tobacconomics report shows how it uses false statistics to do so.


Uses marketing and promotion: most smokers start in childhood and are addicted before they reach 16. While tobacco companies deny they market to children, industry documents through the Tobacco Legacy Documents Library made public over the years show how important the youth market has been to their profits. The Library (LTDL) contains more than 14 million documents (80+ million pages) created by major tobacco companies related to their advertising, manufacturing, marketing, sales, and scientific research activities.


Uses buzz marketing to reach young people. The ASH report You've Got to Be Kidding chronicles how tobacco companies are using marketing techniques to create a buzz to attract young people around the world.


Detailed information on the modern tobacco industry, its front groups and tactics can be found on the Tobacco Tactics website from the University of Bath


With smoking falling in many western countries and its promotion curtailed, the industry is increasingly turning its attention to people in the developing world to hook new customers. As well as killing more smokers, this diverts resources from food production, damages the environment and keeps people in poverty Read this briefing from ASH.