Our Health Policies Cannot Be Decided By Tobacco Companies

On this World No Tobacco Day (WNDT 2012) it would be worthwhile to remember that ‘tobacco products are the only legally available products that can kill up to one half of their regular users if consumed as recommended by the manufacturer.’ The International Union Against Tuberculosis and Lung Disease (the Union), recognizes that, “With its formidable economic and political resources, the tobacco industry is fighting to prevent passage of new tobacco control laws and policies around the world. Article 5.3 of the Framework Convention on Tobacco Control calls for parties to the treaty to resist these efforts to undermine public health and continue the spiralling pandemic of tobacco-related disease.”

There seems to be a fundamental conflict of interest between the goals of the tobacco industry and the goals of governments in promoting public health. The tobacco industry interference has, time and again, weakened and delayed the enforcement of public health policies around the world. It is because of this interference that in India strong pictorial warnings on tobacco packs have been diluted and/or their implementation postponed several times in the past. In November 2008, The Indian Ministry of Health and Family Welfare revealed before the Central Information Commission that tobacco industry is putting "pressure" to relax the tobacco control policies (source: The Hindu, 14 November 2008). In fact the tobacco industry, Indian Hotel Association and other allied agencies had filed more than 70 court cases against tobacco control policies in Indian courts in September 2008, and due to aggressive lobbying by such agencies, the Group of Ministers formed earlier to review the pictorial warnings on tobacco products, diluted the pictorial warnings provision and postponed the implementation of pictorial warnings on tobacco products at least six-times.

Dr Jagdeep Singh Rana of the Union informs that ‘Tobacco industry people have been approaching various sections of officials and activists in Chandigarh (the first Indian city to go smoke free in 2007) to find support for dilution/ defeating the initiative to license the tobacco vendors. Many attempts were made by the industry in this regard in the past.’ Apart from interfering directly in policy making, and devising ways to circumvent the existing tobacco control laws, the tobacco giants under the garb of corporate social responsibility are active in sponsoring/financing not only social activities like film/music concerts/sports events, but also funding educational activities. One such example is the Godfrey Phillip Bravery Awards (given for acts of physical and social bravery and humanitarian service) instituted in India in 1990. Godfrey Phillips India states as its core philosophy “Making a better world for a better tomorrow." Through all such promotional campaigns, the tobacco industry blatantly washes off its sins in public with an air of a do-gooder and gets away with it too. It makes a mockery of our tobacco control efforts and puts the peddlers of death on a pedestal.

In China, which boasts of the maximum number of 350 million smokers and nearly 1.2 million smoking related deaths every year, it is a different story altogether with the government being in conflict with itself over health policies as it is the sole owner of the tobacco industry. The industry is very strong in terms of the huge quantity of the cigarettes produced. So it is not surprising that government efforts to bring down the incidence of smoking are weak and half hearted.

In Indonesia, which is the 3rd largest consumer of tobacco, and has not signed the FCTC, popular music/sports/cultural events which mainly attract teenagers, are sponsored by tobacco companies with a view to market their products to young, potential new customers. There is no ban on advertising tobacco on street billboards or night time television. The result of aggressive marketing and promotional strategies targeting women, children and youth is obvious. Indonesia has the world’s highest percentage of young smokers with an estimated one million smokers being less than 16 years of age.

Irina Berezhnova, Director of The Union Russia Office, says that, “In Russia the tobacco corporate fund social activities to improve environment, education, poverty reduction, and finance art events and institutions. Likewise, Mirta Molinari of the Union informs, “in Latin American countries they help governments under the garb of Corporate Social Responsibility with the sole aim of circumventing existing legislation, delaying implementation of tax increase and smoke free policy and promoting their products to increase the consumption mainly amongst youths and women.”

According to Dr Tara Singh Bam, Technical Advisor at the Union, who is involved with tobacco control activities in Indonesia and Nepal, “In Nepal the tobacco industry lobbies with the officials of the Ministries of Finance, Health and Population, and of Law and Justice and lso funds sports activities. Tobacco tax is still low in Nepal because the tobacco industry is a member of the tax committee under Ministry of Finance. It has also entered into litigation with the Ministry of Health and the government to delay implementation of pictorial health warnings occupying 75% area of tobacco packs and the matter is pending in the Supreme Court of Nepal.”

In Australia the industry’s opposition to plain tobacco packaging has been deviously aggressive and includes legal and economic threats, funding front groups of retailers and think tanks to oppose health policies, making political donations, funding legal actions against the government using trade treaties, and funding mass media campaigns calling Australia a nanny state.

Dr Ehsaan Latif, Director of Tobacco Control at the Union would like governments to be very transparent in their dealings with the tobacco industry, as Article 5.3 under FCTC says that tobacco industry should not be involved in framing health policies. He says that, “It is the duty of the states to protect public health policy from public health interference of the industry. The state should share with the civil society every direction that they have with the tobacco industry and harness the expertise and technical knowledge available with the civil society in countering this epidemic. But what we want is a complete ban on tobacco advertising and sponsorship.”

It is vital to understand that unless all such covert and blatant tobacco industry interference in public health policies is checked, the implementation of other health interventions (smoke-free policies, pictorial warnings on tobacco products, ban on tobacco advertising, promotion and sponsorship) will continue to be weakened, slowed and challenged. It is important to counteract the false propaganda of the tobacco giants with the existing evidence based information, and to inform the public and the media about their tactics which undermine public health policies.

"Industry interference is the number one obstacle to the implementation and enforcement of the global tobacco treaty," says Gigi Kellet, Challenge Big Tobacco Campaign Director, "Article 5.3 is the lynchpin of the treaty, determining whether or not countries will be able to reverse this preventable epidemic without the tobacco industry standing in their way."

Anne Jones, CEO of ASH Australia is convinced that, “Governments must put health first and ahead of the vested interests of an industry that targets children and promotes lethal products that kill and rob people of their good health and years of life. Governments must stand together and fight the rapacious industry by protecting health policies from tobacco industry interference.”

Shobha Shukla - CNS
(The author is the Managing Editor of Citizen News Service (CNS). She is a J2J Fellow of National Press Foundation (NPF) USA. She has worked earlier with State Planning Institute, UP and taught physics at India's prestigious Loreto Convent. She also authored a book on childhood TB (2012), co-authored a book (translated in three languages) "Voices from the field on childhood pneumonia" and a report on Hepatitis C and HIV treatment access issues in 2011. Email: shobha@citizen-news.org, website: http://www.citizen-news.org) 

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