Big Tobacco Faces New Legal Threat from Employees Given Free Cigarettes Now Sick from Smoking

25 April 2019

British American Tobacco (BAT) and the other tobacco companies face a new legal threat today from former employees who were given free cigarettes so encouraging them to smoke, a practice which ASH has discovered was commonplace. In the early 1980s the tobacco industry employed over 30,000 employees in manufacturing alone.[1] Some, including former salesman Simon Neale (details below) now face serious smoking-related illness. Mr Neale has inoperable lung cancer. At BAT’s Annual General Meeting today, health charity ASH will be demanding that the company reveal full details of its policy of handing out free cigarettes to employees and the public.

Salesmen and production workers were given free cigarettes as part of the job, with the tobacco companies knowing that this was likely to lead to addiction, disease and disability. Members of the public were also given free cigarettes (this became illegal under the Tobacco Advertising and Promotion Act 2002 Section 9) and smoking was heavily promoted.  The tobacco industry found out in the 1960s that cigarettes were addictive as well as deadly, but denied it publicly until the late 1990s. [2] ASH is calling on people who took up smoking before the 1990s, became addicted, and are now suffering from serious smoking-related diseases to get in touch and tell their stories.[3]

At today’s BAT AGM, ASH will be raising in particular the case of Simon Neale. Now 57 years old, Mr Neale [4] began working for Rothmans as a salesperson in 1982 at the age of 21 and worked for them for about 4 years. Rothmans merged with BAT in 1999. Mr Neale was given 1200 cigarettes per month to give away or use. He regularly carried 30,000 cigarettes in the safe in his car boot. Mr Neale became a regular and heavy smoker while working for Rothmans. He was diagnosed with inoperable lung cancer in late 2018, while he was still a smoker. Following his diagnosis he finally managed to quit and now vapes instead.

Simon Neale says:

“It’s staggering looking back on it, but I was told when I joined the company that I’d be getting 1200 free cigarettes a month. Working at Rothmans I went from being an occasional smoker, a social smoker, to being a heavy smoker because I had so many cigarettes given to me.  Last Autumn I was diagnosed with inoperable lung cancer and it knocked me for six, the worst thing was telling the children. The lung cancer has all come about from me working for Rothmans.”

At the time Simon was working for Rothmans senior executives in tobacco companies were routinely denying smoking was addictive in public, while internal documents which they subsequently had to make public show that they knew full well that this was the case. An internal BAT memo from 1980 from a Dr Green states that: “It has been suggested that cigarette smoking is the most addictive drug. Certainly large numbers of people will continue to smoke because they can’t give it up. If they could they would do so. They can no longer be said to make an adult choice.” But as late as 1996, the then Chief Executive of BAT, Martin Broughton, said that: “We have not concealed, we do not conceal and we will never conceal … we have no internal research which proves that smoking … is addictive.” [1] Solicitors Leigh Day are now examining Mr Neale’s case with a view to commencing legal action against Rothmans, now part of BAT.

Meanwhile, while BAT staff received free cigarettes, with all the health damage that implies, top BAT executives received ever larger pay, bonuses and pensions. Nicandro Durante, who retired as Chief Executive of BAT at the beginning of April, received pay and benefits worth at least £7.5 million on his departure, having earned more than £50 million while CEO. [5]

ASH Chief Executive Deborah Arnott commented that:

“Simon Neale is not the only one. Many thousands of employees were given free cigarettes and free cigarettes were also doled out to the public. Big Tobacco promoted its products, while hiding from the public, and its own employees, its own evidence that smoking was heavily addictive. We’d encourage anyone now suffering serious smoking-related disease who took up smoking before the 1990s to come forward and tell us their story. Big Tobacco must be called to account.”

ASH has written to BAT, Imperial, and Gallaher (now owned by Japan Tobacco International) to ask how widespread the practice of handing out free cigarettes to staff was, and what warnings if any the tobacco firms gave to staff about the risks of addiction to smoking.



Action on Smoking and Health is a health charity working to eliminate the harm caused by tobacco use. For more information see:

ASH receives funding for its programme of work from Cancer Research UK and the British Heart Foundation.

ASH staff are available for interview and have an ISDN line. For more information email or ring 020 7404 0242. Out of hours contact Deborah Arnott (Chief Executive, ASH) on 07976 935 987.


[1] PIEDA. The UK Tobacco Industry: Its Economic Significance. London: PIEDA consultancy. 1981

[2] Full details in Tobacco Explained: the truth about the tobacco industry in its own words: Clive Bates, Andy Rowell. ASH 2004

In 1967, BAT scientists said “It may be useful, therefore, to look at the tobacco industry as if for a large part its business is the administration of nicotine (in the clinical sense).” (BAT, 1967), and “Smoking is an addictive habit attributable to nicotine and the form of nicotine affects the rate of /absorption by the smoker.” (BAT, 1967)

Dr Green of BAT: “It has been suggested that cigarette smoking is the most addictive drug. Certainly large numbers of people will continue to smoke because they can’t give it up. If they could they would do so. They can no longer be said to make an adult choice.” (BAT, 1980) A memo by BAT scientists: “BAT should learn to look at itself as a drug company rather than as a tobacco company.” (BAT, 1980)

Yet BAT were still denying that cigarettes were addictive:

In 1996, Martin Broughton, Chief Executive BAT told city analysts and journalists that: “We have not concealed, we do not conceal and we will never conceal … we have no internal research which proves that smoking … is addictive.”  Tom Stevenson: BAT Denies Smoking Claims, Independent, Thursday 31st October 1996.

Dr Chris Proctor, Chief Scientific Officer at BAT, responded to an editorial in the Observer in 1998, which argued that nicotine is addictive: “Addiction is an emotive subject and it is certainly possible to define the term broadly enough to include smoking … The public’s understanding has changed significantly over recent decades … The current definition is more colloquial, reflected in terms like ‘chocoholic’ and ‘Addicted to love’ as in a recent movie. This colloquial definition is all inclusive and certainly applies to the use of many common substances that have familiar pharmacological effects to cigarettes, such as coffee, tea, chocolate and cola drinks.” (Statement in the Observer, 1 March 1998 p13)

[3] People who took up smoking before the 1990s and are now seriously ill from smoking are encouraged to contact ASH at to tell their stories.

[4] Please note:  Mr Neale is seriously ill, and he and his family have asked not to be contacted, any media enquiries should be made through Action on Smoking and Health at

Contact ASH for print quality photo of Simon Neale while a Rothmans salesperson.

[5] BAT coughs up £7.5 million for outgoing chief Nicandro Durante: Alex Ralph, The Times, April 5 2019