10A.7Mechanisms of influence—political lobbying

Last updated: March 2024

Suggested citation: Greenhalgh, EM., Scollo, M, Hagan, K., Freeman, B., and Winstanley, M. 10A.7 Mechanisms of influence— political lobbying. In Greenhalgh, EM, Scollo, MM and Winstanley, MH [editors]. Tobacco in Australia: Facts and issues. Melbourne: Cancer Council Victoria; 2024. Available from https://www.tobaccoinaustralia.org.au/chapter-10-tobacco-industry/indepth-10a-strategies-for-influence/10a-7-the-mechanisms-of-influence-political-lobbyi

Exerting influence on government decision-making in Australia, and elsewhere, is an ongoing focus for the tobacco industry. Once legislation is in place, it is difficult to overturn. If shown to be effective in one part of the world, tobacco control legislation is often replicated in other jurisdictions. Many tobacco control advocates believe that the more effective a particular initiative is going to be, the more aggressively the industry will oppose it—often referred to as the ‘industry scream test’.1

Early examples in Australia of resistance to tobacco control measures relate to the introduction of restrictions on advertising2-4 and later, health warnings on tobacco packages.5 Regulatory initiatives to introduce restrictions on smoking in public areas6 and increase tobacco taxation7 have also provoked vigorous response. Strategic opposition to strong legislative measures continued with the well-funded tobacco industry campaign against plain packaging.8,9  Most recently, major tobacco companies have reportedly lobbied federal government MPs—both directly and indirectly—to weaken e-cigarette regulations (see Section

Since the 1990s, in line with the industry’s corporate social responsibility agenda, tobacco companies have espoused what they define as ‘appropriate regulation’ of their products. However, the industry’s definition of what kind of legislation in ‘appropriate’ differs somewhat to that of governments’.

In 2024 Philip Morris International’s webpage on regulation is sub-titled ‘A commonsense approach’ and includes the statement:

'There’s absolutely no doubt that tobacco products should be subject to strict rules and enforcement. The record shows that we respect every government’s authority—and leadership role—in protecting public health. At times, we have forcefully objected to regulations, such as those that remove branding from our cigarette packages and that force consumers to choose among products that look nearly identical. We still believe that plain packaging inappropriately treats adult smokers as unable to make their own decisions. And we don’t agree that banning cigarettes makes sense for smokers or for society at large. With comprehensive requirements in place to control nearly every aspect of the cigarette business, the question becomes: what’s the plan to address the needs of more than one billion people who still smoke?' (PMI website 2024)10

Engaging top-rung law firms and public relations agencies to develop sophisticated multi-faceted strategies to resist or weaken legislation, tobacco companies have invested considerable resources into influencing policy and political processes. In Australia as elsewhere, this has included political advertising, donations to political parties, and appointment of personnel with strong links with governments or important non-government organisations. While not illegal and pursued by many other corporations, such practices may undermine democratic processes and the integrity of government and bureaucratic decision-making.11 Political lobbying is particularly problematic in the case of tobacco, alcohol and gambling industries, and some political parties have adopted policies not to accept funds from such companies. Draft legislation to limit such donations has been proposed on several occasions in Australia, but has so far not been adopted by the Australian Parliament. In parallel with these developments, organisations such as The Centre for Public Integrity call for greater regulation of the rules surrounding political donations and lobbying across the board, as well as for independent oversight of parliamentarians, political staff and public servants.11  

The Conference of Parties to the WHO FCTC Article 5.3 has published guidelines that are designed to help governments protect themselves from tobacco industry interference in the development, implementation and enforcement of tobacco control legislation to protect public health.12,13 In 2019 the Australian Government released a Guidance Note for Public Officials on Interacting with the Tobacco Industry that clearly spells out obligations under Article 5.3 of the WHO FCTC.14 However, implementation of Article 5.3 has sometimes proved challenging, particularly in low and middle-income country contexts.15-20

This section examines a number of tobacco industry strategies that attempt to influence or undermine governments, including:

  • Pre-emptive self-regulation
  • Political advertising
  • Political donations
  • Political lobbying via third parties
  • Links with individuals and the ‘revolving door’
  • Allegations of bribery and corruption in developing countries

10A.7.1 Pre-emptive self-regulation

Arguing for self-regulation and taking the initiative to introduce its own voluntary code of conduct for many decades allowed the tobacco industry to avoid strong and effective governmental regulation. The industry reaped the dual benefits of appearing responsive to government and public concerns, while simultaneously ensuring that any such voluntary code is minimally effective. In contrast, legislation carries penalties for non-compliance and is difficult to rescind.

Philip Morris introduced its own system of placing ineffective health warnings on its packaging for use in countries (particularly in low and middle-income countries) where regulation was weak or not in place. Internal documents show that Philip Morris deliberately gave the appearance of responding to public health concerns and simultaneously earned positive publicity for its apparently responsible stance.21

Until superseded by state and federal legislation, tobacco advertising in Australia was in large part subject to a series of voluntary agreements struck between the tobacco companies and the federal government. The elasticity of the voluntary agreements and the many and varied ways in which they were flouted by the tobacco companies have been well documented.22,23 (See Chapter 11 for further discussion.)

On a global scale, the tobacco industry attempted to thwart the development and subsequent ratification of the Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (FCTC—See Chapter 19).24 Between 1999 and 2001, British American Tobacco, Philip Morris and Japan Tobacco International worked together on ‘Project Cerberus’, an initiative intended to devise an alternative voluntary code for advertising and other industry conduct, which it hoped governments could be persuaded to accept instead of signing up to the WHO FCTC.25

10A.7.2 Political advertising

Tobacco companies have expended considerable resources on campaigns aimed at influencing political decision-making on issues of importance to the industry, including plain packaging and tobacco taxes. The Australian Government’s announcement that it would develop legislation to introduce mandatory plain packaging of tobacco products in 2012 prompted the formation of a new retail sector body, the Alliance of Australian Retailers, which launched a counter mass-media campaign with the goal of stopping the plain packaging legislation. Advertisements featuring portrayals of concerned retailers, saying that plain packaging would not work and would damage their business, appeared nationally.

Australian Broadcasting Corporation television program Lateline revealed the full extent of tobacco industry influence on the Alliance of Australian Retailers campaign, using leaked internal documents, e-mails and contracts. On the day the alliance was formed it received funds from Imperial Tobacco Australia ($1 million), British American Tobacco Australia ($2.2 million) and Philip Morris ($2.1 million). (See Section 11A.2) Tobacco companies have also spent millions in the UK26 and the US28,29 funding advertising campaigns aiming to undermine and prevent proposed tobacco control legislation.

10A.7.3 Political donations

10A.7.3.1 Political donations in Australia

In Australia it is a legal requirement that donations of more than a specified amount ($16,300 from 1 st July 2023 to 30 th June 2024) made by individuals or entities to registered political parties are declared to the Australian Electoral Commission.27 The Australian Electoral Commission posts on its website donor annual returns dating back to the financial year 1998–99. Tables 10A.7.1 and 10A.7.2 show the total amounts of tobacco money received by major political parties in Australia since that time.

Table 10A.7.1 Donations to Australian political parties by Philip Morris Limited,
1998–99 to 2022–23

Source: Australian Electoral Commission, Donor annual return search28-32

Table 10A.7.2 Donations to Australian political parties by British American Tobacco Australia Limited, 1998–1999 to 2022–23

Source: Australian Electoral Commission, Donor annual return search28-31 ,33

10A.7.3.2 Policies of major political parties on donations from tobacco companies

In February 2004, the then leader of the Australian Labor Party (ALP) opposition, Mark Latham, announced that the ALP would no longer accept donations from tobacco companies. In August 2013, when Kevin Rudd was leader of the ALP, he pledged that if re-elected he would amend the Electoral Act to ban donations from tobacco companies to all Australian political parties and candidates. i The leader of the Liberal Party of Australia, Tony Abbott, then quickly announced ahead of the September 2013 election that his party was banned from accepting tobacco company donations from 21 August 2013.34 However the Nationals and Liberal Democrats have continued to receive tobacco industry donations on an ongoing basis.

The Australian National Party remains the last major party to accept donations from the tobacco industry. The Nationals have received over $385,000 from Philip Morris International since their Coalition partner the Liberals rejected tobacco industry donations in 2013.35 The National Party’s then federal director, Scott Mitchell, told the Sydney Morning Herald in October 2016: ‘…the view of the executive is they are legitimate companies and they’re as entitled as anyone else to make a donation if they choose to do so’. Party leader and Deputy Prime Minister Barnaby Joyce reportedly left the door open for change but said tobacco industry donations should be considered as part of broader donations reform.36

The Liberal Democratic Party accepted $170,140 from tobacco companies between 2013–14 and 2021–22. Party senator David Leyonhjelm told the Sydney Morning Herald in 2014 that he had no qualms about accepting donations from companies that produced products that could kill users, because smokers could ‘freely choose’ to take up the habit. He said donations from Philip Morris had influenced his stance on plain packaging: ‘I’ve gone from being strongly opposed to totally opposed to plain packaging’.37

The Australian Greens34 do not accept tobacco company donations as a matter of policy.38

Prior to the ALP’s official refusal of donations from tobacco companies in 2004, all three major political parties received significant contributions from Philip Morris Australia and British American Tobacco Australia. Imperial Tobacco Australia does not appear to have made political donations. In general, substantially larger amounts of funding have been directed by both tobacco companies towards the conservative parties (the Liberal and National parties) even prior to the ALP ban, which is likely to reflect preference by the tobacco companies for conservative politics.

As of 2022–23, in total since 1989–99 Australian political parties had received approximately $2.12 million in donations from British American Tobacco Australia, and approximately $2.55 million from Philip Morris Limited.

Figure 10A.7.1 Donations to Australian political parties by Philip Morris Limited, 1998–99 to 2022–23
Source: Australian Electoral Commission32

Figure 10A.7.2 Donations to Australian political parties by British American Tobacco Australia Limited, 1998–99 to 2022–23
Source: Australian Electoral Commission33

10A.7.3.3 Proposals of electoral reforms relating to donations from tobacco companies

In December 2005, under the Coalition federal government led by John Howard, rules concerning the minimum value of donations requiring disclosure were changed and the threshold for reporting increased from $1,500 to “more than $10 000”. This amount is indexed from 1 July each year, based on increases in the Consumer Price Index.39 According to The Age newspaper, this has simultaneously led to an increase in political donations from all sources as well as opacity in tracing their origins. For example, investigations by The Age showed that although the donor annual return filed by the Liberal Party for the financial year 2005–06 detailed income directly received by the party from tobacco companies, it could not be ascertained from the return that some of the Liberal Party’s closely allied fundraising organisations such as The 500 Club and the Bayside Forum were also in receipt of tobacco money.40  Although these donations were declared by the tobacco companies in their own annual returns to the Australian Electoral Commission, the current system of reporting does not guarantee clear, one-stop disclosure of funding sources. There are also concerns about the timeliness of disclosure, since under the Australian Electoral Commission’s system of annual disclosures, it can take more than 18 months for large donations to be made public.41

In 2014, the Greens party introduced to the Senate its Donations Reform Bill which would ban political donations from property developers and the tobacco, alcohol, gambling and mining industries,42 however the Bill lapsed in 2019 and is not proceeding.42 A Labor bill introduced in 2017 that also did not proceed aimed to implement various reforms including reducing the disclosure threshold to $1000; banning all anonymous gifts to registered political parties and candidates; and introducing new offences and penalties.43

The Australian Senate established the Select Committee into the Political Influence of Donations on 17 August, 2017, to inquire into and report on:

  1. the level of influence that political donations exert over the public policy decisions of political parties, Members of Parliament and Government administration;
  2. the motivations and reasons why entities give donations to political parties and political candidates;
  3. the use of shell companies, trusts and other vehicles to obscure the original source of political donations;
  4. how to improve the integrity of political decision-making through our political donations regime and the public funding of elections;
  5. any other related matters.

In its submission, the Public Health Association of Australia argued that political donations should be banned, particularly from companies whose products cause demonstrable public health damage such as tobacco. If political donations were to be maintained, the association called for a single national online register of all donations, regardless of the amount, updated daily to achieve real-time disclosures.44

In the inquiry report released in June 2018,45 one of the 14 recommendations was

“that the Australian Government amend the  Commonwealth Electoral Act 1918 to introduce a ban on donations from developers, banks, mining companies and the tobacco, liquor, gambling, defence and pharmaceutical industries to political parties, candidates and associated entities.”  Recommendation 9, Section 6.57,

However Labor Senators issued a dissenting report opposing the proposal for the Act to prohibit donations from specific industry sectors, noting that voluntarily adopting policies to refuse such donations should be a matter for party policy. Coalition Senators also heavily criticised the inquiry report.

In a dissenting report on the report of the Joint Standing Committee on Electoral matters released in December 201946 which recommended rejection of the Commonwealth Electoral Amendment (Real Time Disclosure of Political Donations) Bill 2019, dissenting Australian Green Senators repeated their call for the Electoral Act to be amended to ban donations from tobacco and the other industries named above.47

The Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters released a report on its review of the
Electoral Legislation Amendment (Electoral Funding and Disclosure Reform) Act 2018 in May 2021. It made no recommendations, and concluded that:

“the relevant parts of the Act are working effectively and have become understood by affected groups. The committee notes there are a variety of conflicting views about possible amendments, but this reflects diverse interest from observers of the political system and is not suggestive of fundamental structural problems. The Australian political system continues to be a successful exemplar democracy, that is looked on with admiration by many others around the world. Public debate in Australian elections is conducted in a fair manner, facilitating the open discussion of ideas and the peaceful transfer of power.”

The Public Health (Tobacco and Other Products) Act48 passed in late 202349 includes a general ban on industry sponsorship by tobacco and e-cigarette manufacturers, however gifts and payments or reimbursements to politicians and political parties during an election are exempted. Major health groups such as the Royal Australian College for General Practitioners and the Australian Medical Association have called for stronger provisions to prohibit all forms of tobacco and/or vaping industry donations to political parties or individual politicians, including from entities that might be acting on behalf of these industries.50

10A.7.3.4 Political donations in other jurisdictions

The tobacco lobby is also a powerful presence in government decision-making elsewhere. The tobacco industry contributes millions of dollars each election cycle to candidates for Congress in the US, and has influenced the obstruction of many tobacco control policies.51 ,52 Both Democrats and Republicans accept donations from tobacco corporations, and for decades members of both parties have in turn voted pro-tobacco.53 ,54 Tobacco companies have also provided hospitality and entertainment for MPs in the UK,55 and a higher percentage of MPs who voted against plain packaging in the UK had received hospitality from the tobacco industry, compared with those who either voted in favour of it or abstained from the vote. Researchers have expressed concern that any influence of tobacco industry hospitality on politicians’ decisions may demonstrate the industry’s ability to undermine Article 5.3 of the Framework Convention on Tobacco Control.56

Although the tobacco control community is unable to match the financial resources of the tobacco industry in promoting its goals, non-government and community organisations have managed to advance tobacco control at least to some degree through persuading decision makers to counter the tobacco lobby.57 Through monitoring, documenting and exposing tobacco industry interference, as well as fostering community partnerships, tobacco control organisations have effectively raised awareness of and limited industry strategies.58 ,59 For example, the Global Tobacco Industry Interference Index is produced by the Global Center for Good Governance in Tobacco Control ranks government efforts in 90 countries (unfortunately not including Australia60 ) to implement WHO FCTC Article 5.3.61

Some countries have banned corporate donations to political parties, including Botswana, Cote d’Ivoire, Lao PDR, Nepal, Nigeria, Türkiye, Belgium, Canada, France, Israel, Poland, Ukraine, Spain, and the Republic of Korea.62-64 Article 5.3 of the World Health Organization’s Framework Convention on Tobacco Control requires that “in setting and implementing their public health policies with respect to tobacco control, Parties shall act to protect these policies from commercial and other vested interests of the tobacco industry” (see Section 19.3).65 In particular, guidelines for implementation of Article 5.3 recommend that “parties should not allow any official or employee of government or of any semi-quasi-governmental body to accept payments, gifts or services … from the tobacco industry”.65

10A.7.4 Political lobbying via third parties

Use of third-party actors is an important part of tobacco industry lobbying. Indirect engagement of seemingly independent interest groups can add weight and credibility to pro-tobacco arguments.66 A range of retail groups, trade bodies, think tanks, and organisations representing big business receive money from and serve the interests of the tobacco industry, while ostensibly representing their own agenda.67   For example, internal documents have revealed that third party lobbying was a fundamental part of the tobacco industry’s strategy to influence decision making concerning the EU Tobacco Products Directive.68 This strategy is used to overcome the tobacco industry’s poor credibility and trust with the public; instead, the anti-tobacco control message is delivered by an ally of the industry.69 Ahead of an October 2023 Senate Community Affairs Legislation Committee hearing into proposed tobacco and e-cigarette advertising regulatory reforms,70 the chief executives of the Australasian Association of Convenience Stores and Master Grocers Australia—which lobbied against tobacco and vaping reforms—refused to disclose the amount of funding their groups received from the tobacco and e-cigarette industries.71

Third-party groups aligned with the tobacco industry such as trade associations and think tanks have also donated to political parties. The Alliance of Australian Retailers, recognised as a front group for the tobacco industry72 , donated a total of $90,000 to the Liberal Democratic Party in 2015-16. The Alliance has also declared high amounts of “political expenditure” which includes printing, broadcasting and polling and research on electoral matters. In 2010-11, prior to the introduction of plain packaging on December 1, 2012, the alliance’s declared political expenditure was more than $9 million.35 In the 2020-21 financial year the director of Legalise Vaping Australia donated $44,000 to the Liberal Party.73

The University of Bath’s Tobacco Tactics website notes that the Institute of Public Affairs, one of Australia’s leading right-wing think tanks, has long been a strong opponent of tobacco control and has put forward arguments similar to those of the tobacco industry. On the day the Australian Government announced its plain packaging policies, the IPA’s Tim Wilson took part in several interviews. He supported the industry claim that the new law violated tobacco companies’ intellectual property rights and said that taxpayers would have to compensate the firms for the loss of their trademarks. The IPA did not disclose receipt of any funding from the tobacco industry. In April 2002, the IPA’s Don D’Cruz wrote an article for The Australian newspaper’s opinion page, disclosing that the Institute “receives support from tobacco companies”. When asked in 2010, the IPA refused to say if it was still accepting industry money.74 Other organisations identified as third party groups include the Australian Taxpayers’ Alliance, the Australian Lotteries and Newsagents Association, the Master Grocers Association, and the Australian Association of Convenience Stores.75

See the Tobacco Tactics website for many more examples of third party techniques used by the tobacco industry.

10A.7.5 Links with individuals and the ‘revolving door’

One of the most insidious ways that industry lobbying can influence political decision making is the ‘revolving door’; that is, when politicians and public officials take up lobbying jobs, or when industry lobbyists take up roles in government. These employees may be regarded as particularly valuable due to their connections and unique knowledge of internal processes.76 ,77 These movements may create significant conflicts of interest, with the potential to undermine democratic decision making that benefits public health.78 For example, during the lead up to revision of the EU Tobacco Products Directive, a number of former EU officials worked or consulted for the tobacco industry, and played key roles in fighting the proposal.68 A number of public officials in the UK have also gone on to hold high profile positions in the tobacco industry, or even held these positions simultaneously.79 A recent Australian investigation found that the ‘revolving door’ is prevalent in tobacco industry lobbying. Nearly half (48%) of internal tobacco company lobbyists and more than half (55%) of lobbyists representing tobacco companies had previously held government positions. Many of these individuals held senior governmental roles (e.g. Member of Parliament or Senator, chief or deputy chief of staff, or senior advisor in a ministerial office) and transitioned between government and the tobacco industry or lobbying within a short timeframe.80 Action on Smoking and Health (ASH) recently launched the  US Tobacco Lobbyist and Lobbying Firm Registration Tracker, finding that in 2023, four in five tobacco industry lobbyists registered at the federal level were former government employees. At the state level, 577 of the 927 lobbying registrations for the tobacco industry represented a company owned by or has a licensing agreement with adjudicated racketeers, including Altria, Reynolds American, Inc (RAI), and Juul.81  In 2022, Former Chief of the office of science in the FDA’s Centre for Tobacco Products resigned to work for PMI.82

Individual Australian politicians have also been criticised for meeting with lobbyists or attending tobacco industry events,83 ,84 and Home Affairs secretary Michael Pezzullo was fired in 2023 over dealings with lobbyists, including those from the tobacco industry.85 An EU report on industry interreference also found many instances where EU officials may have indirectly accepted, endorsed or supported offers of assistance from tobacco industry-backed entities. For example, participating in events organised by industry front groups.86 Concerns have also been raised over commercial ties between the tobacco industry and politicians or leaders. It was reported in 2014 that the chief executive of the UK civil service had commercial links with both the alcohol and tobacco industries; a large number of medical professionals and charities argued that these roles are incompatible.87 A leading Conservative backbencher in the UK, who had a history of arguing against tobacco control measures, was reported to Parliament’s standards watchdog in 2014 for failing to disclose that he was also a founding partner and director of a management firm whose funds held investments worth £23m in tobacco companies.88 The former director of the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) under Trump’s administration reportedly bought shares in a tobacco company one month into her leadership of the agency.89 A recent investigation found evidence that the UK ambassador to Yemen had opened a cigarette factory, part owned by British American Tobacco (BAT), in Jordan.90

Implementation of the 5.3 guidelines at a national level has on occasion proved to be a challenge for international philanthropic organisations that fund tobacco control and other health projects due to organisation executive ties to the tobacco industry.91-93

10A.7.6 Allegations of bribery and corruption in low and middle-income countries

In the 1970s, RJ Reynolds were found to have paid millions of dollars to foreign officials as bribes.94 Philip Morris paid US$16,000 to a Dominican Republic tax officer prior to a favourable ruling, spent US$12,000 allegedly in order to have a significant law enacted, and made legal contributions of about US$200,000 to the President’s political campaign during the late 1990s.95 In 1998, there were allegations that Philip Morris had funnelled donations to the largest political party in the Czech Republic through a fictitious company, with the scandal resulting in the resignation of the environment minister.96 In Nigeria, British American Tobacco allegedly attempted to undermine tobacco control by bribing journalists with cash prizes for favourable media coverage (e.g., the “British American Tobacco Industry Reporter of the Year” award provided reporters with a new laptop and 100,000 Nigerian Naira) and by giving expensive gifts to regulatory agencies and government officials.97

More recently, Universal and Alliance One (two American tobacco companies) paid nearly US$30 million to settle charges that they bribed foreign officials to secure lucrative overseas tobacco sales contracts. Universal was accused of bribing officials in Thailand, Malawi and Mozambique, while Alliance One was accused of bribing officials in Thailand, China, Greece, Indonesia, and Kyrgyzstan.98 In 2012, the EU health commissioner, John Dalli, resigned over allegations that he had entertained a bribe in exchange for weakening the Tobacco Products Directive.99 In 2021 Dalli was charged with trading in influence and attempted bribery over an alleged €60 million bribe to lift an EU-wide ban on snus.100 A formal investigation of British American Tobacco was launched in 2017 by the UK Serious Fraud Office (SFO) after allegations that it engaged in widespread bribery and corruption in Africa to gain advantage over competitors and stifle government efforts to reduce smoking.101  In January 2021 the SFO said it had closed the case because the evidence ‘did not meet the evidential test for prosecution.’102 A report examining the allegations notes that key witnesses have claimed that they were not interviewed by the SFO.103 Additional investigations have alleged that BAT has extensively and systematically used payments in Africa in order to maintain dominance, and called for further investigation into its conduct.104

Tobacco companies have generally defended their conduct in low and middle-income countries, arguing that they are in line with local business norms and customs. Other commentators interpret these practices as contributing to political instability that helps to prevent effective regulation.95

See the Tobacco Tactics website for a detailed discussion of bribery and corruption.  

i Despite the Labor Party’s ban on tobacco industry donations, an executive of a Sydney based company that imported tobacco products from China, Peter Chen, reportedly donated $200,000 each to the party’s NSW and federal branches in 2011 and 2013.

Relevant news and research

For recent news items and research on this topic, click  here. ( Last updated January 2024)



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