Revealed: Big Tobacco’s campaign to undermine UK generational smoking ban

By making legal threats and lobbying politicians, the tobacco industry worked to undermine a radical new bill to create a “smoke free” generation, documents show.

29 June 2024

By Matthew Chapman, The Examination

The tobacco industry has threatened the U.K. government with legal action and wined and dined right-wing members of Parliament in an attempt to sabotage a law proposed to stop future generations from ever smoking. 

Over a period of seven months, tobacco companies made multiple legal threats, lobbied politicians and government departments, submitted arguments against the smoking ban and courted Tory MPs,  who suggested amendments to the legislation or voted against it, an investigation by The Examination and the Guardian has found.

Industry funded think tanks and campaign groups also argued vehemently against the ban in the media and in responses to the government’s consultation over the proposed law, which were obtained by The Examination.

The legislation was considered Prime Minister Rishi Sunak’s political legacy and was designed to create a “smoke free generation” by raising the legal age of customers tobacco can be sold to by one year every year — eventually phasing out legal sales to anyone born after 2008. It could have made the U.K.  the first country in the world to successfully ban tobacco for future generations, and set a precedent for other countries to introduce such policies, after similar proposals in Malaysia and New Zealand were scrapped

However, the U.K. generational smoking ban was shelved after Sunak announced a surprise July general election. The legislation was excluded from the wash-up process, which fast-tracks bills into laws before the dissolution of parliament ahead of the public vote. The bill was dropped despite the Department of Health and Social Care pushing to get the legislation finalized before the general election. 

The industry’s activities “undermine democracy because transnational corporates can draw on huge budgets to drown out genuine health and community voices – distorting public debate and undermining regulations that aim to protect people’s health,” said Sheila Duffy, chief executive at anti-smoking group ASH Scotland. 

They “throw sand in the gears of regulation and create confusion,” she added.

Tobacco giants make multiple legal threats

The British government was facing a legal threat from the U.K.’s biggest seller of cigarettes when the Tobacco and Vaping Bill was dropped, according to documents seen by The Examination.

Imperial Brands, which sells almost half of all cigarettes in the U.K. and whose brands include L&B and John Player Special , teamed up with British American Tobacco, which manufactures Lucky Strike and Pall Mall products, to write to health secretary Victoria Atkins in February to claim the consultation process into the new legislation was “unlawful.” 

In April, Imperial Brands followed up its accusation with a legal letter threatening the government with a judicial review. Government lawyers responded by warning that the legal threats could “derail” the advancement of the bill, which it believes will save tens of thousands of lives and billions of pounds in National Health Service costs. 

Smoking is the U.K.’s biggest preventable killer, causing around one in four cancer deaths and approximately 80,000 deaths each year, according to the Department of Health. 

British American Tobacco, Japan Tobacco International, and Philip Morris International were all named as interested parties in Imperial Brands’ legal threat and were sent a copy of the pre-action protocol letter. The move enables the other tobacco giants to join as co-claimants or make their own submissions to the judicial review. 

Imperial Brands has not yet filed court proceedings but a spokesman told The Examination the company is “keeping the situation under review as we monitor legislative developments.” 

The spokesman said its legal challenge was to ensure the government gives “lawful consideration to our response to the consultation” and was “not challenging” the bill itself. 

“The letter specifically challenged the Government’s decision not to take any account of the consultation responses of participants with links to the tobacco industry in finalizing their proposals. Imperial Brands believes that this represents a failure to carry out a fair and lawful consultation process,” he added.

British American Tobacco said it is “clear” cigarettes pose serious health risks but added it does not believe that a generational sales ban will have the “desired impact given the serious unintended consequences that are likely to follow.”

“For those adults who would otherwise continue to smoke or start smoking, we believe they should be able to make better choices by opting for smokeless alternatives instead of cigarettes,” a spokesman added.

This is not the first time the industry has threatened the government with legal proceedings over the legislation. Marlboro-cigarette maker Philip Morris (PML), the subsidiary of Philip Morris International in the U.K. and Ireland, had already lodged a lawsuit against the consultation at the High Court in December, but later withdrew the court action. 

Japan Tobacco International, the U.K.’s second biggest seller of cigarettes, made a veiled threat that the legislation could face legal action, according to its response to the government’s consultation about the legislation. 

In a document, obtained by The Examination via a Freedom of Information request, the company claimed the ban “would expose the UK to legal challenges for breach of its trade obligations” under the World Trade Organization and Free Trade Agreements.

Public support, private opposition 

The legal threats came after the major tobacco firms opposed the legislation in submissions to the public consultation. This opposition is despite public statements made by tobacco giants Philip Morris International and British American Tobacco, which claim they want to phase out cigarettes. In media interviews three years ago, Philip Morris chief executive Jacek Olczak  said cigarettes should be treated like petrol cars, which will be banned from sale in the U.K. by 2030. 

But in a document released to The Examination under Freedom of Information laws, PML, the company’s U.K. subsidiary disagreed that the age of sale of tobacco products should be changed to effectively ban anyone currently aged 15 or younger from ever buying tobacco products. 

The company said it “did not support the age of sale ban as outlined” and argued instead for “further restrictions” on “combustible tobacco” [cigarettes] instead of an outright ban on tobacco products.

Philip Morris International told The Guardian, The Examination’s media partner, the legislation risked “confusing” consumers because it included restrictions on some smoke-free products such as heated tobacco, adding that it “firmly believes in phasing out cigarettes, to the benefit of the 6.4m adult smokers in the UK.”

The tobacco industry also argued in their consultation responses that the ban would infringe on the rights of British citizens and lead to a major growth in black market cigarette sales. 

In a parliamentary debate on the bill, health secretary Victoria Atkins hit back at tobacco industry representatives who were claiming that  “the black market will boom.” 

“Before the smoking age was increased from 16 to 18, they sang from the same hymn sheet, but the facts showed otherwise,” said Atkins. “The number of illicit cigarettes consumed fell by 25%, and smoking rates for 16 and 17-year-olds dropped by almost a third.”

Courting Tory MPs

The arguments made by the tobacco industry against the ban coincided with a concerted effort by the industry to woo right-wing and libertarian politicians – who then made moves opposing the legislation. 

Japan Tobacco International hosted Conservative MP Giles Watling twice this year. On the first occasion the company treated him to a “business lunch” in January, which coincided with reports of him writing to Sunak to urge the prime minister to drop the smoking ban in favor of raising the age of sale of cigarettes from 18 to 21.

Watling also attended the tobacco company’s annual party at the British Museum on March 13. In May, he proposed an amendment to the legislation that would have raised the age of sale to 21 and killed off the generational smoking ban. The amendment was rejected by the committee. 

His ties to Japan Tobacco International stretch back over a year. In March 2023, Watling hosted a reception in the Houses of Commons’ Terrace pavilion for the tobacco giant. In February of this year, Watling also stepped in at the last minute to host an event at the Houses of Parliament for smoking rights group Forest, which receives funding from JTI and Imperial Brands, after fellow Conservative MP Philip Davies was unable to attend at the last minute. 

A few weeks prior to Watling’s attempted amendment to the legislation, England’s chief medical officer Chris Whitty warned of the risk that amendments posed to the bill in a webinar for public health professionals. 

“There’s a real risk of one or more amendments, which would seriously weaken or even derail the bill, getting support if we’re not very, very careful,” said Whitty. “I’d say particularly keeping an eagle eye on cigarette companies sponsored amendments, which could substantially reduce the impact of the bill.”

Watling also made other amendments to the Tobacco and Vaping Bill that were potentially favorable to the industry, including an attempt to remove the power of the secretary of state to make regulations about flavors of vaping products and nicotine products.

MP Giles Watling
Conservative MP Giles Watling reportedly wrote to Prime Minister Rishi Sunak urging him to drop the smoking ban and instead proposed a “blanket ban” on selling cigarettes to those under the age of 21.House of Commons/PA Images via Getty Images

He also attempted to introduce an amendment that would have required retailers to obtain licenses to sell tobacco and vaping products. In a debate on the bill last month, anti-tobacco activists and shadow minister for public health Preet Gill said they  suspected the attempts to introduce a licensing policy was a way to slow the passage of the legislation with amendments, which  ultimately could prevent it being passed before a general election. Watling did not respond to The Examination’s request for comment.

The tobacco industry had also lobbied for the age of sale being raised to 21 instead of a “generational ban”. In the British American Tobacco consultation submission, it claimed the ban would provide some adults with “fewer rights” and proposed raising the age of sale to 21 instead. 

British American Tobacco also wrote to prospective parliamentary candidates requesting a meeting after conducting private polling that claimed constituents supported the introduction of a vaping retail license. 

Other MPs targeted by the tobacco industry include business secretary Kemi Badenoch, one of the leadership rivals to Sunak. 

On March 7, an organization called The Imported Tobacco Products Advisory Council (ITPAC) wrote to Badenoch complaining about the “open dismissal of industry views in the decision making process.” ITPAC made the complaint after the Department of Health and Social Care stated that it had not considered the industry’s views when deciding on its policy response. This was due to a World Health Organization global treaty that requires parties to protect public health policy from the commercial interests of the tobacco industry.

ITPAC secretary-general Tatiana Camacho accused the DHSC of “taking a position that seems to go against the spirit of collaboration and inclusiveness.” 

Camacho added, “I believe this stance may not align with the views of several members of government, as it potentially overlooks the nuances of balancing public health objectives with the concerns of various stakeholders.”

A month later, Badenoch voted against the smoking ban at the second reading of the bill in Parliament stating on the social media platform X (formerly known as Twitter) that the “principle of equality under the law is a fundamental one.” 

She added, “We should not treat legally competent adults differently in this way, where people born a day apart will have permanently different rights. Among other reasons it will create difficulties with enforcement.”

“Prohibition” comparisons

In its consultation submission, Japan Tobacco International compared the smoking ban to the United States’ prohibition of alcohol in the 1920s and labeled it an “impractical and illiberal experiment with serious unintended and disproportionate consequences.” 

It said that in the future it would be a “farce” for retailers to attempt to distinguish between customers when a 68-year-old can buy tobacco products but a 67-year–old cannot. It also claimed the legislation would violate international and domestic equalities laws by discriminating against adults depending on their birth year. 

Imperial Brands also argued the ban was an infringement of personal freedoms and said it had not been given a fair opportunity to explain its position, which is the argument it is using in its calls for a judicial review. 

There were 307 responses to the consultation on the legislation which disclosed links to the tobacco industry out of a total 28,000 responses, according to the Department of Health. These included the Institute of Economic Affairs and Adam Smith Institute. Both think tanks receive funding from Japan Tobacco International, while Imperial Brands provides funding to the IEA. 

Japan Tobacco International said it supported these organizations because “we agree with many of their concerns related to consumer choice”, while Imperial Brands said it supports “a small number of organizations which share similar views.”

In its response to the consultation, the IEA said, “Incremental tobacco prohibition is arguably the most idiotic and illiberal policy any democratic government has devised in the twenty-first century. It manages to combine the hubris of Napoleon, the absurdity of late-period Caligula and the authoritarianism of the Taliban.”

Just days before the Tobacco and Vaping Bill was shelved, the smokers’ rights group Forest hosted a ‘Beat the Ban” event lunch at Boisdale, a London restaurant beloved by the U.K.’s former prime minister Boris Johnson and Nigel Farage, the leader of the right-wing political party Reform UK. Forest is funded by both Japan Tobacco International and Imperial Brands, which between them controlled around 80% of the U.K.’s cigarette market in 2023, according to Euromonitor. 

Invitees included Tory MPs, tobacco company lobbyists, the IEA, Adam Smith Institute and ITPAC boss Tatiana Camacho.

Conservative MPs Alexander Stafford, the parliamentary private secretary to Kemi Badenoch, and Andrew Rosindell, the MP for Romford, both attended the lunch. The drinks reception for the event featured beer mats with a cartoon depiction of Prime Minister Sunak dressed as a nanny, an allusion to the smoking ban being a “nanny state” measure. 

Stafford said he had no links to the “tobacco lobby” in the parliamentary debate about the smoking ban, which took place before the industry-backed lunch. 

“I wish to declare almost an opposite interest,” said Stafford in the Houses of Commons. “I have never smoked a cigarette or a cigar in my life…yet I am against the Bill. That is not because I have any vested interest in the tobacco lobby … it is because I am a lover of freedom, a lover of choice and a lover of information.” 

At the tobacco industry-backed lunch Stafford was pictured sitting opposite Camacho, the industry lobbyist who wrote to Badenoch to criticize the Department of Health

Stafford told The Examination he made his comments about having no links to the tobacco lobby “prior to the lunch.” He added, “I attended the lunch for less than 30 minutes to show my opposition to the Bill (something I tabled amendments on.) I had no control or influence over the seating plan. I have not previously met with anyone from ITPAC before or since. But fundamentally I am both against smoking and an outright ban.”

Tory MP Philip Davies was also due to appear at the lunch but was unable to attend and instead issued a media statement, calling the legislation “utterly absurd.” 

“Not only is it illiberal, and a triumph for the nanny state – treating adults as children – it is also completely unenforceable. In years to come are we really expecting shops to ask 51-year-olds for ID to ensure they are not 50?”

Government transparency records reveal Davies’ previous ties to the tobacco industry. Last year, he hosted an evening reception at the Houses of Parliament for the U.K. subsidiary of tobacco giant Philip Morris International, the manufacturer of Marlboro cigarettes.

Smoking bans scrapped globally

The shelving of the legislation in the U.K. comes after attempts to introduce similar policies in Malaysia and New Zealand were defeated. The Kingdom of Bhutan banned all adults from smoking in 2010 but reversed it during the COVID-19 pandemic, due to concerns tobacco smugglers would bring the virus into the country.

The only place in the world which currently has a generational smoking ban is in Brookline, Massachusetts, after the U.S. town successfully defeated a legal challenge by retailers who claimed the measure would mean adults would have different rights based on their date of birth. A number of towns in the U.S. are considering a similar ban.

In its response to the U.K. government’s consultation over its proposed bill, Japan Tobacco International used Malaysia and New Zealand as examples of how the generational ban legislation would not work. However, the industry has been accused of influencing politicians’ decisions to shelve the policies in these countries. 

In Malaysia, the generational ban was scrapped on the grounds it was “unconstitutional”. In March, the country’s deputy minister of health Lukanisman Awang Sauni told Parliament that the industry had successfully influenced the government to drop the proposed legislation. 

“If we look at our experience when we tabled the GEG [generational end game], a conflict of views arose due to industry pressure – the industry entered Parliament and the industry met with Members of Parliament, which influenced the decision,” said Sauni. 

Some Malaysian legal experts argue the ban would in fact have been constitutional. 

“The State does have the power of distinguishing and classifying persons,” Dr. Shad Saleem Faruqi, professor of law at the University of Malaya, wrote in a legal opinion on the issue. “Age is a permissible, rational and necessary criterion for classification under a host of laws. All in all, the bill is supportable in its basic aim of eliminating the scourge of smoking.” 

New Zealand’s generational ban was due to come into law but repealed as part of an agreement between the country’s center-right National Party and two other parties, New Zealand First and ACT, a libertarian party.

Since the ban was overturned, media outlets have exposed links between the New Zealand First Party and the tobacco industry. 

Apirana Dawson, a lobbyist for Philip Morris International, previously worked as director of operations for the New Zealand First’s leader and maintained his relationships with the party: he was a guest at the swearing-in ceremony for new government ministers and was pictured posing with one of the party’s politicians there, according to reporting by The Post. Shane Jones, the New Zealand First MP, said he took “soundings” from Dawson on the party’s tobacco policy, according to RNZ. 

Links between New Zealand First and Philip Morris International appear to be well known in the industry. Lobbyists for Juul discussed the connection in an internal company email released as part of a legal settlement. 

“Initial contact made with New Zealand First party (in coalition with Labor govt but will tread very carefully due to their PMI links)” the 2019 email said. 

Casey Costello, the New Zealand First minister now in charge of tobacco policy was also formerly chair of New Zealand’s Tax Payers’ Union, a lobby group that has received money from British American Tobacco.

Shortly after taking on the position, Costello was embroiled in a controversy over plans to freeze taxes on tobacco in New Zealand .RNZ obtained a government note  from her parliamentary office that criticized the previous administration’s attempts to introduce a smoking ban and other tobacco control measures, and proposed a three-year tax freeze on tobacco products. Costello denied any involvement in writing them.

“The policies were ideological nonsense that no other country had been stupid enough to implement,” one note said.

Costello told The Examination that she is committed to reducing smoking rates in the country and has “no links to the tobacco industry, and I have not met with the tobacco industry.” 

New Zealand’s reversal is now being used by the industry to argue against the U.K.’s smoking ban. 

In Imperial Brands’ response to the U.K. government’s consultation on the smoking ban, it said that the increase in illicit trade from a smoking ban was “inevitable as the New Zealand government acknowledged.” 

Despite the industry’s objections, the smoking ban is set to be resurrected in the U.K. if the Labour party wins the upcoming election. The party has pledged to “ensure the next generation can never legally buy cigarettes.” The Conservatives have also promised to bring back the smoking ban bill if they defy the polls and are voted back into power. 

“The UK almost secured world-leading legislation,” said Duffy of ASH Scotland. “Responsibility for that law now rests with the incoming UK Government, and those elected to Parliament must prepare to reinstate and defend it.”