The Global Business of Tobacco Is Far Away From Over

One could be mistaken by thinking that the war on tobacco is ending. Lighting up a cigarette was a common practice just a decade or two ago but may seem absurd to us now. We can have a night out without having to endure a husky, wash our clothes, or a sore throat the next morning and we enjoyed an afternoon coffees and restaurant meals without the stench of toxic smoke.

The Figures

Australia presently has the lowest rates of smoking in the world down from 16.1% in 2011-12 with 14.7% of adults aged 18 years. There are further commitments from the Australian federal, state and territory governments to reduce the smoking rate to 10% by 2018.

According to Dr Serge Alastair Kozak (FRACGP MBBS BMedSc DCH) from Rebotec, there is good news too at the global level. According to a report from the World Health Organization (WHO), 63% of the global populations are now covered by policies such as smoke-free public places and strong tobacco warning labels. Years ago, more than 53 million people in 88 countries stopped smoking due to anti-smoking measures that were driven by the Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (FCTC); this framework itself represents the global community incredible achievement.

The Evidence

New evidence emerged and reminded us a sense of accomplishment, or worse, completion, which is not far from the truth and the risks from public health contentment could be tremendous and deadly. A tobacco giant company Philip Morris leaked internal documents and offered additional insights into the progressively and appalling complex tactics used by industry to protect profits overpopulation health; increasingly focused on the world’s poorest nations, efficient and coordinated beyond imagination, and ruthlessly deadly.

Papers that show deliberate and estimated strategies to obstruct progress on health policies worldwide was never seen. Efforts included holding secretive and simultaneous industry meetings alongside primary global health and WHO-led conventions in New Delhi and Moscow, with the purpose to obstruct progress towards the further success of tobacco control. A presentation for an internal company in 2014 refers these conventions as “regulatory runaway trains” motivated by “anti-tobacco extremists.” Industry “roadblocks” (their term) cite this as essential solutions to delay health policies and they challenging such policies as a breach of copyrights, and unconstitutional.

These delay and scare tactics are effective; in 2013, the Philip Morris trail opposing Australia’s plain packaging laws saw New Zealand holdback the adoption of similar strategies. When waged in underdeveloped nations with weaker economic powers to protect public health efforts, then this intimidation approach is particularly effective. These kinds of legislative challenges to tobacco control measures also work to hinder efforts by other nations; all the industries know this, and it reflects in their business strategies. The 2014 Philip Morris meetings on efforts to block or dilute measures meant to strengthen tobacco controls and lessen cigarette-related deaths were concluded with emails from company executives congratulating their team.

Leaked papers show that at the country level, tobacco executives also target health programs and policies. Avoiding a declaration of health over trade was indeed one written and systematic objective of the tobacco industry. A complex method describes the effort at ensuring that the Ministries of Finance control tobacco policy decisions but not Ministries of Health, as the former was perceived as more likely to prioritize revenue from tobacco businesses over the resulting disease.

Philip Morris’s actions condemning evidence in India also emerged, with a 2014 internal document explicitly highlighting an opportunity to increase market share and target India youth. The company has been connected to direct distribution of free cigarettes at bars and nightclubs and payments to tobacco shops to showcase advert both in direct conflict with national law. The threat to public health posed by pernicious, predatory and pervasive industry practices cannot be overstated: it is just a matter of life and death. Health spending on tobacco-related medication and treatments is estimated at $16 billion annually and tobacco accounts for almost 1 million deaths per year in India alone.

The Analysis

These newly leaked documents simply resonate a “groundhog day” phenomenon and reconfirm long-held suspicions. They describe cold, powerful and unscrupulous industry executives and calculated obstructions of public health efforts by strategic. These are not desperate actions of a dying industry, in fact, no fewer people smoked every day in 2016 worldwide than they did ten years earlier and Philip Morris International’s share price has doubled since 2008.

In 2016, the Global Energy Balance Network urged policymakers to emphasize exercise in the mitigation of obesity with many of the same approaches now adopted by food, alcohol and soft drink producers alike. As it turns out, the primary aim of this network was to use distraction tactics and dubious science to shift health policy focus away from active, nutrition-based interventions. It was revealed later that Coca-Cola funded this very platform although the website was registered to the soft-drink multinational. The cases are numerous and global.

Business of Tobacco Is Far From Over

The continuing influence and power of the global tobacco industry cannot be underrated as cigarettes are the only product that when used, it will kill one in two of its users. As we neither strive to protect populations from other highly profitable health threats nor should the medical communities or public health expect the tactics to be any different. We should expect such tactics to become more desperate, depraved and deadly as further progress is made in anything. Not for a minute should we think that the battle is even close to ending, but we should be happy with the progress made so far.

 

Adam Hansen