Background Standardised packaging of tobacco products has been a contested policy issue in the UK since 2011. The measure would entail prohibition of brand imagery, colours and promotional text from tobacco products and packaging, with a key objective being to reduce youth smoking uptake. It has been opposed by transnational tobacco companies. By mapping their corporate political activity (CPA), knowledge and understanding of corporate opposition to public health measures can be deepened.
Methods Qualitative content analysis of textual and visual documents where opposition to standardised packaging was expressed (n = 270), obtained via the internet using snowball sampling. Targeted media monitoring, freedom of information requests, tobacco industry document searches, and key informant interviews informed the data collection process. Organisations opposed to standardised packaging were identified from collated documents and internet searches were used to ascertain links between identified organisations and transnational tobacco companies. Documents were qualitatively coded using NVivo 10 for political activities, opposing arguments, and analysed for relationships between organisations, activities and arguments. Political science literature on CPA was used to inform interpretation of results.
Results 138 organisations were coded as opposing standardised packaging of tobacco products between 2011 and 2013 in the UK. The organisations with the most documents associated with them were transnational tobacco companies, and front groups, lobby groups and think tanks partly or fully funded by them (31 organisations, 165 documents). Qualitative relationships were identified between these organisations’ activities and arguments: 1) external constituency building, used in public venues to promote illicit tobacco, economic impact and libertarian arguments; 2) direct lobbying, used in political venues to promote illicit tobacco and economic impact arguments and critique the policy process; 3) shaping the evidence base, used in both public and political venues to support arguments relating to illicit tobacco, economic impact, and the strength of evidence in favour of the measure; 4) constituency fragmentation, used in both public and political venues to highlight alleged weaknesses of the evidence base and flaws in the policy process.
Discussion Transnational tobacco companies have strategically funded front groups, lobby groups and think tanks, thereby creating the impression of a broad constituency against standardised packaging. The dual focus of tobacco corporations’ CPA on public and political venues – ‘venue-shopping’ – and the multiplicity of their arguments have provided tobacco corporations with the opportunity to attract support, influence the focus of the policy debate – ‘agenda-setting’ – and, possibly, delay legislation aimed at improving public health in the UK.
- tobacco policy
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