Today (Thursday 31 May) is World No Tobacco Day, a World Health Organisation (WHO) initiative aimed at highlighting issues around the use of tobacco products. This year, the WHO has selected “tobacco industry interference” as the theme for the day in an effort to expose and counter the tobacco industry’s „brazen and increasingly aggressive attempts‰ to undermine anti-tobacco efforts.
As more and more countries prescribe to the WHO’s plan to minimise the health impact of tobacco, a document entitled the Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (FCTC), the tobacco industry’s efforts to undermine the treaty are becoming more! and more energetic, according to a WHO statement.
“Globally, the industry has put corporate profits above the lives and health of its customers,” said Dr Yussuf Saloojee from the National Council Against Smoking (NCAS) in South Africa. “That smoking causes lung cancer was scientifically established in 1950. Yet since then tobacco use has killed 100 million people. And unless societies act, it will kill a billion people in this century.
“The deaths are needless and avoidable as effective policies to reduce tobacco use are available and included in the WHO FCTC. Nationally and internationally the biggest obstacle to the adoption of such policies is the tobacco industry.”
According to Saloojee, the tobacco industry has used its enormous wealth to bribe or bully governments and the media in order to avoid regulation and to keep increasing sales of its products.
“The tactics used by the tobacco industry to resist government regulation include paying scientists to create controversy about established facts, funding political parties, hiring lobbyists to influence policy, using front groups and allied industries to oppose tobacco-control measures, pre-empting strong legislation by pressing for the adoption of voluntary codes or weaker laws, and corrupting public officials. All of these strategies have been used to a greater or lesser extent in South Africa,” said Saloojee.
Most recently, the industry is expanding its war against public health by turning to the courts. The assault includes challenges to legislation in a number of countries including South Africa, Australia, Uruguay, Norway, the UK and the US.
In South Africa the Supreme Court is currently considering an appeal by British American Tobacco (Batsa) to declare a section of the Tobacco Products Control Act 1993 prohibiting tobacco advertising as unconstitutional. Last May, the North Gauteng High Court rejected Batsa’s case and ruled that a ban on tobacco advertising was reasonable and justifiable in a democratic society.
The case follows an amendment to the Act by Parliament in 2008 to outlaw the industry’s notorious “secret smoking parties”, as well as techniques known as “viral”, “buzz” or “guerrilla” marketing used to target teens.
“In challenging laws, the purpose of the industry is not just to win a particular court case but also to intimidate governments by letting them know that the politics of tobacco is the politics of trouble.
“Another industry strategy is scaremongering,” said Saloojee. For example, it has exaggerated the level of illicit trade in South Africa and has publicised claims that this trade was linked to car hijacking and drug dealing. It was unable to substantiate the latter claims and ordered to withdraw its misleading advertising by the Advertising Standards Authority in 2011.
The industry has also made inaccurate claims about the level of smuggling in South Africa. In 2007, the Tobacco Institute of South Africa (TISA) told a parliamentary committee that the illegal trade was around “20% of total market and growing”. In 2010, BAT claimed that cigarette smuggling had doubled in the previous year with one in five cigarettes sold being illegal. “Since ‘one in five’ is the same as ‘20%’ the illicit market would appear to have been neither ‘growing’ nor ‘doubling’! Independent researchers put the level of smuggling in 2007 at about half the levels claimed by TISA and reported that it was falling,” according to Saloojee.
The cigarette companies have an interest in exaggerating the level of the illicit trade because it puts pressure on the government to cut excise tax rates. „A ploy that has worked – since 1997 the government has increased the tax rate on cigarettes by a paltry 2%, from 50% of the retail price to 52%.
“This reveals another industry strategy of warning governments of the dangers of smuggling while being complicit in the illicit trade. The International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, after reviewing once-secret internal industry documents, concluded BAT, for example, had ‘for decades secretly encouraged tax evasion and cigarette smuggling in a global effort to secure market share and lure generations of new smokers’.
“There is no sign of weakening of the tobacco industry’s resolve to counter regulatory measures. WHO has urged countries to put the fight against tobacco industry interference at the heart of their efforts to control the global tobacco epidemic,” Saloojee concluded.
Tobacco causes 44 400 deaths every year in South Africa according to the Medical Research Council.
Sources: WHO, NCAS