Although fast food, alcohol and television are yet to be widely recognised as clear health hazards, tobacco has definitely passed that stage. Nobody anymore argues that tobacco poses serious harm to people’s health.
Tobacco kills one of two users, when used as advised by the manufacturer. No other product causes death to that extent, although fast food, alcohol and television are close competitors. However, the tobacco industry is still allowed to manufacture, market and promote their deadly products, simply because of the power they have, which is largely due to the financial wealth of the industry.
"In recent years, multinational tobacco companies have been shamelessly fuelling a series of legal actions against governments that have been at the forefront of the war against tobacco. The industry is now stepping out of the shadows and into court rooms"
According to the Tobacco Atlas, the total revenue of the tobacco industry in the past year was nearly USD 500 billion, which is almost four times the GDP of Sri Lanka. They can and do invest in measures, which make sure that they continue their legal right and the societal permission to manufacture, market and promote their deadly products.
It is time to personally identify these unethical agents of serious harm to health and the economy of people. Namely there are six major companies: China National Tobacco Corporation, Philip Morris International, Japan Tobacco International, British American Tobacco, Imperial Tobacco and Altria/ Philip Morris USA. The CEOs of these companies individually earn up to USD 24 million a year.
"Sometimes we will need to speak as independent scientists, scientific groups and businessmen; at other times we will talk as the industry; and finally, we will speak as the smoker"
Framework Convention on Tobacco Control
To exorcise such a powerful devil, we need an equally powerful exorcist. Finally the exorcist metamorphosed in the form of FCTC: Framework Convention on Tobacco Control. This is a legally binding treaty of countries of the world fully backed by the World Health Organisation. Following the historical and selfless commitment of many individuals and organisations, the FCTC entered into force in 2005. The name of the then Director-General of WHO, Dr. Gro Harlem Brundtland, cannot be left out even in writing this brief history of the FCTC. It is also noted that Sri Lanka was the fourth country in the world to ratify the treaty.
Now almost the whole world is involved in FCTC. Given the extent of the support and the comprehensiveness of the treaty, it holds many promises for the future of all of us.
How the tobacco industry fights the FCTC
A WHO publication, Tobacco Industry Interference a Global Brief, recognises six of these ‘tactics’:
The tobacco industry did everything possible to prevent the creation of the FCTC. Since the FCTC came into force, they have been trying to undermine it. Words spoken by Dr. Margaret Chan, Director-General of WHO, sum up their strategy: “Tactics aimed at undermining anti-tobacco campaigns, and subverting the WHO Framework Convention, are no longer covert or cloaked by an image of corporate social responsibility. They are out in the open and they are extremely aggressive.” She further went on to say: “I want to remind governments in every country of the range and force of counter-tactics used by the tobacco industry – an industry that has much money and no qualms about using it in the most devious ways imaginable.”
Manoeuvring to hijack the
political and legislative process
The tobacco industry monitors the political process and takes swift action when needed. If a governmental department or an individual politician is attempting to develop effective tobacco control measures, they quickly attack the relevant body. For example British American Tobacco was successful in Cost Rica in creating a rift between the Minister of Finance and Trade and the Minister of Health when the former attempted to bring tougher tobacco control policies. This well-documented story explains how Costa Rica ended up having very weak tobacco-control policies.
"Tactics aimed at undermining anti-tobacco campaigns, and subverting the WHO Framework Convention, are no longer covert or cloaked by an image of corporate social responsibility. They are out in the open and they are extremely aggressive"
Exaggerating the economic importance of the tobacco industry
They never refer to the economic and health losses attributable directly and indirectly to tobacco smoking. The tobacco industry has been able to create an image, even among learned people in a country that the economy would collapse if the tobacco industry was to fall. For example, the Malawian tobacco control body known as the Tobacco Control Commission of Malawi, argued in 2000 that ‘‘WHO’s global campaign would chop at least 10 per cent off Malawi’s tobacco earnings every year.’ Not surprisingly the document they used to substantiate this argument was a report by ITGA - International Tobacco Growers’ Association, an organisation created by tobacco companies in 1984 to weaken global tobacco control activities.
Tobacco companies are very keen to highlight their contribution to the tax revenue of a country and the job market.
Manipulating public opinion to gain the appearance of respectability for the industry
It is important for tobacco companies to gain public approval in order to continue their deadly trade. Hence they do various activities to create a positive picture in the mind of the public. They give money to poor farmers or elderly people, they build police stations and hospitals and so on. The Moscow Times reported one such project of a tobacco company in Russia in the following manner: “It is very hard to attract funds to projects that seek to help the elderly, the homeless and the mentally ill, Zadirako [head of charitable foundation United Way of Russia] said. ‘Everybody wants very pretty projects that can be turned around very quickly.’ Tobacco companies give particularly large sums to initiatives that support old people.”
Fabricating support for the industry through front groups
The tobacco industry never wants to be an opponent of the tobacco controllers. They always manipulate other agents to speak on behalf of them. They prefer to have the battle between smokers and health personnel. It is obviously profitable to show that it is the rights of the smokers that are at stake but not the profits of the tobacco companies. Internal documents of Phillip Morris, which were made available to the public together with thousands of such other documents of the tobacco industry, after the landmark court rulings in the USA in late 1990s, known as the Master Settlement Agreement, reveal their strategy: “Sometimes we will need to speak as independent scientists, scientific groups and businessmen; at other times we will talk as the industry; and finally, we will speak as the smoker.”
Discrediting proven science related to tobacco, its harm and control
Intimidating governments trying to implement tobacco control measures with litigation or the threat of litigation
Although it is not very easy, the tobacco industry knows that a lie repeated several times becomes the truth. They always try to discredit the well-known scientific basis of health hazards of tobacco smoking. Once a Vice-President of Phillip Morris wrote: “Let’s face it. We are interested in evidence which we believe denies the allegation that cigarette smoking causes disease”
Former WHO Director-General Dr Margaret Chan states in a news release to mark World No Tobacco Day 2012: “In recent years, multinational tobacco companies have been shamelessly fuelling a series of legal actions against governments that have been at the forefront of the war against tobacco. The industry is now stepping out of the shadows and into court rooms.”
Libertad,Inc, a not-for profit organisation set up and fully funded by the tobacco industry in USA to host events and seminars in exotic vacation destinations in America and Europe for legislators, bureaucrats and judges. It is now clear that some judges who attended these seminars with pending cases related to product liability of tobacco companies later made those rulings in favour of the tobacco companies.
Responsibility of the health sector
The tobacco industry has been making all possible attempts, mostly unethical and frequently illegal, to undermine the fight against tobacco. There are numerous such examples all over the world. It is time for us to examine the Sri Lankan scenario to unearth such practices by the Sri Lankan tobacco industry. Only then would we be able to upgrade our strategies to counter theirs. Finally the hard truth remains to be a battle between the tobacco industry and health advocates.