The tobacco epidemic is one of the biggest public health threats the world has ever faced, killing more than 8 million people a year around the world.
More than 7 million of those deaths are the result of direct tobacco use while around 1.2 million are the result of non-smokers being exposed to second-hand smoke.
Despite all these mind-boggling facts, the tobacco industry continues to reinvent itself whenever debate around the destructive nature of their business arises.
The industry employs numerous tactics to ensure that it actively counters any move aimed at curtailing its multi-billion-dollar business across the globe. One such strategy is the use of front groups.
A front group is an organisation that purports to represent one agenda while in reality, it serves some other party or interest whose sponsorship is hidden or rarely mentioned.
The tobacco industry has a long history of using front groups which often have had hidden links to it. Although often difficult to detect, the use of front groups is a clear example of third party techniques.
Some groups with an involvement with the tobacco industry have been very opaque about their funding.
Interestingly, medical practitioners have also sometimes found themselves being used by the tobacco industry to water down scientifically proven facts on the negative impacts of tobacco use. They do this through deflection of medical facts or trying to remove tobacco from the equation.
The tobacco industry has pioneered the use of front groups to advance its cause, probably more than any other controversial industry. The industry undermined the efforts for international regulation on smoking to such an extent that the World Health Organisation (WHO) decided to investigate.
One of the fundamental problems with front groups, the lack of transparency, is highlighted in the WHO report. “Lack of disclosure by front groups and consultants of their links with the tobacco industry results in unbalanced arguments and evidence presented without statements of relevant competing interests,” reads part of the Tobacco Industry Interference with Tobacco Control report.
Power of influence
The more the industry is constrained by national and international law, the more it will fund groups or think tanks whose agenda dovetails into its own. The tobacco industry uses front groups to create the appearance that a broad-based public constituency in support of their issues exists.
The groups are then used to influence opinion leaders, legislators, regulators or public opinion in general, and to make it look like a wide range of apparently unrelated third parties support tobacco industry positions.
The tobacco industry has repeatedly formed and financed biomedical research front groups with the goal of generating a body of published academic research about tobacco that does not harm the industry, and that helps advance industry positions on a wide range of issues.
Simon Mwangi-Manager, Corporate Communications at the National Authority for the Campaign Against Alcohol and Drug Abuse (NACADA)