Strategic discourse and illicit cigarette market in Sri Lanka
Of course! Words do get things done! Change the words, alter the discourse – presto – world around you start to change.Yes, discourse is strategy, and communication specialists call it STRATEGIC DISCOURSE.
Given below are only few infinite examples:
1. “Fresh milk causes phlegm!”
People start to use powdered milk.
2. “Psychiatrists no longer call homosexuality a disease.”
Stigma and discrimination attached to homosexuality further lessen.
3. “It’s called medical marijuana!”
Cannabis consumption goes up.
4. “Federal system of power devolution should not be based on racism.”
People start to wonder if proponents of federalism are actually racists.
5. “Beating your wife is not a family matter but a punishable crime.”
Wife beaters are called criminals by others potentially contributing to intolerance of domestic violence.
6. “Cigarettes for women are Torches of Freedom!”
Female smoking rates skyrocket in USA during women’s liberation movement.
7. “No beer? You are worse than a woman!”
"The Corporate World has used strategic discourse for over a century"
" Non-declaration of the source of funding in academic research is considered blasphemous"
You are made to feel that women are, by default, inferior, and you, who refused beer, are a further rung lower than the women!
The list goes on and on.
The Corporate World has used strategic discourse for over a century. The rulers and religious leaders have used it for millennia because it is effective.
Words do get things done.
Words do change the world.
Maybe not immediately but eventually. At least they increase the chances. The Corporate world, the Multinational Companies, have always made good use of this strategy. You may have noted that every year, few weeks and months prior to budget proposals being presented at the Parliament, there is news about illegal cigarettes or alcohol. They feature words such as revenue lost to the government, harm from illicit alcohol and so on.
And, now we see another report, this time by academics, one of them a well-published one, titled ‘A baseline study on the illicit cigarette market and the resulting tax implications for Sri Lanka’. Although yet to be published in a scientific journal, it has already been quoted widely by newspapers and other media. Many in the tobacco control camp will tend to accuse the Researchers of twisting the data to support claims by the tobacco industry. However, I beg to differ, not only because they are academic colleagues in the university system, but mostly because they seem to have taken quite an effort. An expensive effort. They have bothered to collect empty cigarette packs and cigarette butts, to do some test shopping and to survey smokers and to interview policy makers and law enforcement authorities. Surveys are claimed to have been conducted in Colombo, Gampaha, Kalutara, Galle, Matara and Ampara, according to newspaper reports of the study.
Well, there are striking similarities between what the tobacco industry, Ceylon Tobacco Company (subsidiary of British American Tobacco) in this case, and what the authors say. I have summarised them in the table below:
The annual tax revenue loss and the number of illicit sticks entering the market are strikingly similar. One can say that such similarities should raise an eyebrow. The suspicion is further worsened by the fact that this large scale expensive study is said to have been funded by an unnamed, private, consulting company. Non-declaration of the source of funding in academic research is considered blasphemous.
However, I still believe that there is a possibility that the authors may have done their job properly and ethically. Well, if the facts are correct, then
there cannot be two truths.
What the CTC reported all these years, and what the Morais, Colombage and Wickramasinghe group have found out after a serious effort, maybe nothing but one truth, the real picture. The critiques, especially after the report is available fully for scrutiny, will find out if there has been any foul play or manipulation by the tobacco industry directly or indirectly.
However, the most interesting and important message is not that. The most interesting, important and powerful message is not very difficult to read. It is there hidden in plain sight. That is strategic discourse!
Thanks to this report, and some expensive launch and media coverage, a discourse is initiated, again: Tax revenue loss – illicit cigarette trade – hike of cigarette prices.
It is not the facts that matter.
It is the words.
Words change the world.
Fact: Compelling evidence exists to believe that it is the legitimate cigarette companies, including British American Tobacco, who is represented in Sri Lanka as CTC, that is involved in illicit trade of cigarettes to evade tax. You can read the 2013 Al Jazeera report titled ‘Spotlight on the tobacco industry’s role in smuggling’ (https://www.aljazeera.com/indepth/opinion/2013/09/spotlight-tobacco-industry-role-smuggling-2013922124916359957.html). However, it is easier to change the discourse and change what people believe in the end, than to fight over facts. The Finance Minister has a wonderful opportunity to talk about loss of government revenue due to the big price hike in cigarettes in 2016, which this report and the CTC duly mention. Furthermore, the CTC has a wonderful opportunity to say that independent research (I do believe that this study could still be independent, subject to future close scrutiny) has shown that they, CTC, were telling the truth all the time.
And, the tobacco control camp has a wonderful opportunity to cry foul over this study and bring further attention to the study and the ‘tax revenue loss – illicit cigarette trade – hike of cigarette prices’ discourse.
With each of these steps the discourse inside the head of people and policy makers will change; a few persons at a time. The new desired discourse, yearned for by the CTC and the British American Tobacco, is ‘tax revenue loss is due to increased illicit cigarette trade resulting from the hike of cigarette prices’.
Strategic discourse will strategically change every year. From ‘tax revenue loss is due to increased illicit cigarette trade resulting from the hike of cigarette prices’ to ‘increasing cigarette prices will worsen illicit trade resulting in greater revenue loss to the government’. From that to ‘a hike in cigarette tax is actually harmful for the country’. Leading to ‘maybe reducing cigarette price will prove beneficial’. Thoughts, words and deeds are interconnected.
Meanwhile the discourse will continue strategically manipulated.
Because words do change the way we think.