It is the latest example of a company in a highly regulated sector putting a legal expert in overall control of its PR and corporate affairs function, following a similar move by brewer SABMiller.
Abelman will start his new role on 1 January, replacing Kingsley Wheaton, who is to head another new division focused on product innovation under the job title managing director – next generation products.
Abelman will take charge of BAT’s legal and corporate & regulatory affairs function following the retirement in April 2015 of Neil Withington, group legal director and general counsel.
BAT senior press and relations manager Will Hill told PR Week: "We are focused on trying to ensure that tobacco regulation is balanced, evidence-based and won't backfire in terms of increasing youth smoking or the illicit trade in tobacco. As such, there are a lot of synergies between legal and corporate affairs in terms of agreeing our position on various topics. In this respect, Jerry has a great deal of experience to bear from his time spent working in a number of our end-markets around the world.
"Under Jerry's leadership we will build a more powerful and dynamic department which will help the business address the new challenges it faces."
BAT chief executive Nicandro Durantem said: "I am pleased to welcome Jerry to the management board. He will enhance the team with his substantial experience of the business and regulatory matters in particular.
"Furthermore, as managing director – next generation products, Kingsley will bring the combination of his energetic leadership, marketing background and corporate affairs experience to this critical role."
The changes have been announced alongside news that Des Naughton, managing director – Nicoventures, is to step down from BAT on 28 February 2015 to "focus on new business opportunities".
In a similar move to put control of corporate affairs under the remit of a legal expert, last month SABMiller announced a shake-up in executive responsibilities that will see general counsel John Davidson take charge of comms. The new structure also saw the departure of corporate affairs director Catherine May.