The tobacco industry’s escalating attacks on public health are replicated across the world, as is the harm caused by its products.
‘THE TOBACCO industry attempts to impede tobacco regulation have changed over the years, but have not abated – they have instead mutated, and on a global scale.’
I was privileged recently to deliver the keynote address to the annual meeting of the Israel Society for Smoking Cessation and Prevention. The title was “Advocacy efforts in countering tobacco industry tactics.”
In the address I quoted Dr. Margaret Chan, director- general of the World Health Organization, who in 2008 said, “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.”
Just as the primary vector for malaria is the mosquito, the primary vector for the tobacco epidemic is the tobacco industry. The industry attempts to impede tobacco regulation have changed over the years, but have not abated – they have instead mutated, and on a global scale.
When the WHO’s first and only internationally binding treaty – the Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (WHO FCTC) – entered into force (Israel became a signatory in 2005), there was a dramatic increase in the number of countries implementing tobacco control policies. The industry determined to adapt to the new situation.
According to WHO, the tobacco industry has continued to use advertising, promotion and sponsorship to undermine tobacco control efforts. In addition, it has sought to interfere with tobacco control on a global scale using a variety of tactics. For example, it lobbies and funds politicians and political parties to hijack the political and legislative process. It exaggerates the economic importance of the industry, while remaining silent on the massive health and economic costs of tobacco use. It manipulates public opinion to gain the appearance of respectability, often under the guise of corporate social responsibility, while irresponsibly playing down or denying the real harms its products.
It fabricates support by developing and resourcing front groups who advocate on the industry’s behalf. It continues to attempt to discredit proven scientific and economic evidence – often erroneously claiming that evidence from one country isn’t applicable in another.
And, increasingly, it intimidates governments with litigation or the threat of litigation, or trade threats.
Tobacco companies have recently launched a spate of international legal challenges to oppose the implementation of legitimate and robust tobacco control measures. Bilateral investment treaties have been used as the premise for international commercial arbitration challenges against Uruguay and Australia. This typifies the tobacco industry’s response to countries exercising their regulatory autonomy in the tobacco space: one of untenable intimidation.
This intimidation of governments is important because only governments can ratify and implement UN treaties, such as the WHO FCTC, mandate public health legislation and implement taxation policies that increase the price and reduce the affordability of tobacco products – the single most effective way of reducing tobacco use.
Legal and trade challenges typically have a delaying effect upon the country concerned – the implementation of tobacco control measures is paused until the case is resolved, they are expensive for governments (typically costing millions of US dollars) and have a regulatory chill effect on other countries that might be contemplating similar measures. However, these challenges have been repeatedly dismissed by high courts, constitutional courts and courts of justice in jurisdictions including Australia, the UK, Kenya, France, the European Union, South Africa, Thailand and Uruguay.
In addition, more and more countries are dismissing tobacco industry opposition, and introducing plain packaging. Responding to the industry’s increased use of trade law, Bloomberg Philanthropies and the Gates Foundation announced an $ 4 million fund to support countries against such threats – but we need to adopt other strategies too.
For example, research is often directed toward establishing the rates of smoking prevalence, health and mortality, and the economic impact of tobacco. This research is invaluable, but more effort also should be directed at tracking tobacco industry behavior so we can more efficiently monitor and resist the tobacco industry vector. Many advocates do not even know whether the tobacco industry donates to front groups or politicians in their country; whether the International Tax and Investment Center (funded by the tobacco industry) has visited their Finance Ministry with the mantra of not raising tobacco taxes; or whether the industry has met with government (and under WHO FCTC Article 5.3, the tobacco industry should have no part in formulating tobacco control policy).
This is perhaps why recent allegations regarding tobacco industry bribes to the Israeli government came as such a shock.
The tobacco industry’s escalating attacks on public health are replicated across the world, as is the harm caused by its products. The global tobacco epidemic, which will kill six million people this year, cannot be addressed unless we are equipped to counter all the industry’s tactics and all governments – including Israel’s – stand firm in stopping the tobacco industry from influencing health policy development and implementation.
The current prevalence of smoking in Israel is about 20%. Israel’s next step could be, as many countries have already done, to announce a target of 5% prevalence rate by 2028, and work annually to achieve this target. This is an ambitious target, but challenging rather than impossible.