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Clearing the smoke on age of sale: The hidden tactics of the tobacco industry

by Amy Warnock | Analysis

15 April 2024

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A cloud of smoke

Here at Cancer Research UK, we’re big supporters of the plan to raise the age of sale of tobacco products by one year every year to help create the UK’s first smokefree generation

If these changes, which are currently being considered by Parliament, have the impact we hope, up to 9.7 million fewer cigarettes could be smoked per day by 2040. And the Government’s impact assessment suggests the measure could save tens of thousands of lives, as well as billions of pounds, in the coming decades.  

But there are those who are trying to prevent the legislation from going through, most notably the tobacco industry, which currently makes billions of pounds in profits while the people who use its products often suffer ill health as a result.  

The tobacco industry has often used a variety of tactics to prevent, delay and circumvent regulation. 

In this article, we’re going to explore some of the tactics that the industry has historically used to try to prevent tobacco control initiatives, so you know what to look out for.  

Causing delays through legal action 

After the proposed age of sale legislation was announced earlier this year, the Daily Telegraph reported that tobacco company Phillip Morris International (PMI) had threatened legal action against the government. The move had the potential to cause lengthy delays to the legislative process.  

The Department of Health and Social Care responded with a letter highlighting that the case was without merit, calling the attempted legal action ‘an unjustified attempt to delay or derail important legislative change’. 

Following this response, the legal action was withdrawn.  

But this isn’t the first time the tobacco industry has tried to use the legal system to prevent tobacco control measures.  

In 2011 PMI launched similar legal action against the Australian government over their plans to introduce standardised packaging, banning tobacco companies from displaying their distinctive colours, brand designs and logos on cigarette packs. 

Although the legal action was ultimately unsuccessful, some commentators speculated that the money the Australian government had to spend fighting it could potentially make other countries fearful of implementing their own tobacco control measures.  

Utilising the ‘third party technique’ 

In 2011, the Government published the tobacco control plan for England, which included a commitment to a public consultation to ‘look at whether the plain packaging of tobacco products could be an effective way to reduce the number of young people who take up smoking and to support adult smokers who want to quit, and consult on options by the end of the year’. This consultation was held in 2012. 

This resulted in a large amount of public and political debate which lasted until plain packaging legislation was approved in 2015.  

In 2016, the Tobacco Control Research Group at the University of Bath published the results of an investigation into the organisations that opposed plain packaging in the three years around the 2012 consultation.  

Interestingly, they found that three quarters of organisations that opposed standardised packaging had financial relationships with one or more tobacco companies. This resulted in an incorrect impression of diverse and widespread opposition to plain packaging. 

Influencing the science 

The tobacco industry also has a long history of influencing research to try and support its own agenda. 

For example, with concerns growing around the health risks of second-hand smoke, in the late 1980s, the tobacco industry set up the Centre for Indoor Air Research (CIAR). In its own words, the CIAR aimed to ‘broaden research into the field of indoor air quality generally and to expand interest beyond the misplaced emphasis solely on environmental tobacco smoke’.   

On 29 January 2003, the US Department of Justice outlined in court documents that the ‘CIAR was officially created … to act as a coordinating organization for Defendants’ efforts to fraudulently mislead the American public about the health effects of ETS (environmental tobacco smoke) exposure’. 

The tobacco industry also funds scientific studies that serve its own aims. This research is often presented as independent, with tobacco industry-funded researchers sometimes failing to declare conflicts of interest 

More recently, the industry has put greater focus on research into newer products, such as those using heated tobacco products. A 2022 Cochrane review in the UK found that all randomised control trials of heated tobacco products were funded by tobacco companies and that there was a need for independent research to accurately assess the safety of these products. 

Using the illicit tobacco trade as a smokescreen  

The tobacco industry has also tried to derail debates about tobacco control by making unsupported claims about the illicit tobacco trade. 

Standardised packaging, which was brought into effect in the UK in 2017, is designed to limit the appeal of tobacco products. But the tobacco industry argued that standardised packaging would make it easier for illicit tobacco products to be bought and sold.  

However, this was disproved by studies in both the UK and Australia, which demonstrated that there was no evidence for an increase in illicit tobacco sales after the introduction of standardised packaging.  

A similar approach was used when it came to tobacco tax increases, with the industry arguing that that it would lead people to consume more illicit products. Again, things didn’t play out that way, with a World Bank report later showing that tobacco taxes play only a minor role in illicit trade.  

The same argument is now being used against age of sale legislation. The Institute of Economic Affairs, which has received funding from the tobacco industry, recently published a report in which they suggested that the new legislation will ‘drive a black market for tobacco’. 

Making smoking history

Despite these industry tactics, the UK Government is continuing to move forward with introducing the proposed age of sale legislation. The new bill was introduced to parliament on the 20th of March, and the crucial second reading – where MPs will also have the chance to vote on the legislation – is expected tomorrow.  

It’s important that MPs do not get distracted by the smokescreens used by the tobacco industry, and instead do the right thing for future generations and help make smoking history. 

You can get involved too. By using our quick and easy form to email your MP, you can tell them that you support a smokefree generation and help bring about a future where tobacco – the biggest cause of cancer and death in the UK – isn’t available behind the counter in every cornershop.    


This article uses information made available by, which is produced by the Tobacco Control Research Group in the Department for Health at the University of Bath. Copyright University of Bath and used under permission of the University of Bath. All rights reserved. 

Some research by the Tobacco Control Research Group is funded or part-funded by Cancer Research UK. 

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