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To investigate how and why Japan Tobacco, Inc. (JT) in 1986 established the Smoking Research Foundation (SRF), a research-funding institution, and to explore the extent to which SRF has influenced science and health policy in Japan.We analysed documents in the Truth Tobacco Industry Documents archive, along with recent Japanese litigation documents and published documents.JT’s effort to combat effective tobacco control was strengthened in the mid-1980s, following privatisation of the company. While remaining under the protection of Japan’s Ministry of Finance, the semiprivatised company lost its ‘access to politicos’, opening up a perceived need for collaboration with global cigarette makers. One solution, arrived at through clandestine planning with American companies, was to establish a third-party organisation, SRF, with the hope of capturing scientific and medical authority for the industry. Guarded by powerful people in government and academia, SRF was launched with the covert goal of influencing tobacco policy both inside and outside Japan. Scholars funded by SRF have participated in international conferences, national advisory committees and tobacco litigation, in most instances helping the industry to maintain a favourable climate for the continued sale of cigarettes.Contrary to industry claims, SRF was never meant to be independent or neutral. With active support from foreign cigarette manufacturers, SRF represents the expansion into Asia of the denialist campaign that began in the USA in 1953.