Exposed: Wolf in sheep's clothing - tobacco industry’s greenwashing attempts thwarted

At a time when the entire world is reeling under a severe public health emergency, the tobacco industry is not leaving any stone unturned to protect and expand its markets of products that are proven to cause deadly diseases and greenwash its dirty image (as it has blood on its hands of over 8 million deaths every year attributed to tobacco use). More alarmingly, tobacco is a major risk factor for several health conditions that increase the risk of serious outcomes if one gets infected with corona virus, including death. And let us not forget that even before the Covid-19 pandemic, tobacco-caused diseases were of epidemic proportions and causing completely avoidable human suffering and untimely deaths.

Nepal rejects attempts by tobacco industry to clean its dirty image

Tobacco kills 27,000 people every year in Nepal, and each of these untimely deaths could have been averted. Likewise, each of the deadly diseases caused by tobacco use could be prevented. But this is only possible if Big Tobacco is held financially and legally liable for the damage it has caused to human life and to our planet.

What happened in Nepal will remind us of the oft-quoted words: 'wolf in sheep’s clothing'. But the best twist is that people are wiser now to recognise that corporate wolf and rise up against its devious designs.

A senior journalist from Nepal, Kalpana Acharya, who is also a former Chairperson of Nepal Health Journalists’ Forum, and a founding board member of Asia Pacific Media Alliance for Health and Development (APCAT Media), said that a memorandum of understanding (MoU) was to be signed between a children’s hospital and Surya Nepal, a company of which tobacco is the leading business. But media exposed this ill-fated ominous MoU, due to which the MoU signing event had to be cancelled. Prof Dr Bhagawan Koirala, founding Chairman of Kathmandu Institute of Child Health (KIOCH), rightly rejected the money offered by tobacco industry. This is a big achievement for public health and for Nepal, remarked Kalpana Acharya. 

Tobacco industry has used deception and lies to lure our children and young people into using their addictive products. That is why in 2014 then Director General of the WHO, Dr Margaret Chan, had rightly said: "One record shows that there was an internal discussion whether the [tobacco] industry should consider children as part of its market. I remember very well one reply which I would like to quote: ‘they have got lips, we want them’. They [tobacco industries] just want market share, they could not care less whether they are killing children or not." "Giving any tobacco company a place at the negotiation table is akin to appointing a committee of foxes to take care of your chickens" had said Dr Chan. That is why Nepal's rejecting tobacco industry 'help' towards child health becomes even more important for public health.

"For tobacco companies, corporate social responsibility is nothing more than a business strategy that directly contradicts the global tobacco treaty. Article 5.3 and Article 13 of this legally binding global tobacco treaty (formally called the World Health Organization Framework Convention on Tobacco Control or WHO FCTC) aims to prevent the industry from meddling in and influencing tobacco control policy. As per the WHO FCTC, corporate social responsibility is considered as “tobacco advertising, promotion and sponsorship” which must be banned comprehensively. It is indeed a yet another major public health win for Nepal and broader health justice movement that Kathmandu Institute of Child Health has declined signing the MoU with Surya Nepal as well as rejected the money offered by it. Nepal should continue complying with its obligations to the global tobacco treaty as well as enforcing national laws strictly" said Dr Tara Singh Bam, Asia Pacific Regional Director of the International Union Against Tuberculosis and Lung Disease (The Union) and Board Director of Asia Pacific Cities Alliance for Health and Development (APCAT).

Nepal is among more than 180 countries worldwide that have ratified the legally binding global tobacco treaty, which contains the world’s most effective tobacco control and corporate accountability measures and is estimated to save more than 200 million lives by 2050 if fully implemented. Nepal and all other countries that have ratified the global tobacco treaty have obligations to fully implement the lifesaving policies, including the WHO FCTC Article 5.3, of whose first principle is grounded in the fact that there is a fundamental and irreconcilable conflict of interest between tobacco industry and public health. Countries must establish measures to limit interactions with the tobacco industry and ensure the transparency of those interactions that occur. Governments must also reject partnerships and non-binding or non-enforceable agreements with the tobacco industry. More importantly, WHO FCTC Article 5.3 also states that governments must de-normalize and, to the extent possible, regulate activities described as “socially responsible” by the tobacco industry, including but not limited to activities described as “corporate social responsibility”. 

Governments must reject 'donations' from tobacco industry but hold them liable

"Right now our greatest chance of dying from Covid-19 is not necessarily related to the treatment we receive or the variant, but our outcome of Covid-19 is pre-determined by our health history – whether we have hypertension, diabetes (or other health conditions that are associated with serious outcomes of Covid-19) – whether you have had years of badly managed underlying health conditions- this is the single most predictive and prognostic marker of whether you will die from Covid-19" had said Dr Michael Ryan, Executive Director of the WHO's Health Emergencies Programme, who leads the team responsible for international containment of Covid-19.

Tobacco has been causing epidemic-proportion diseases, that were entirely preventable. In addition, tobacco is also a major risk factor for conditions that determine whether every Covid-19 positive person will develop serious outcomes or die. That is why governments must reject so-called 'donations' in every form from the tobacco industry but instead hold these companies legally and financially liable. Financial liability of these companies will give governments much more resources to rebuild post pandemic a socially just world, which also has to be tobacco-free.  

Shobha Shukla and Bobby Ramakant - CNS

24 April 2021

The Sangai Express, Manipur, India (editorial page, 26 April 2021)

Central Chronicle, India (edit page, 28 April 2021)