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April 2nd, 2015:

Conflicts of interest between government and tobacco industry is bad

Public health activists were eagerly awaiting the implementation of new health warnings on cigarette packs that were to come into force from yesterday, April 1. Instead, on the eve of their implementation, the Union government announced that the amendments to the Cigarettes and Other Tobacco Products (Packaging and Labelling) Rules, 2008, which sought to increase the size of health warnings from the current 40% to 85% of the packets’ surface area would be kept “in abeyance”. The reason given was that there was no Indian study to confirm that the use of tobacco products leads to cancer and that this was in the interests of bidi workers in the tobacco industry.

The enhanced labelling requirements have been adopted by a number of countries such as Nepal (where the ‘warning coverage’ is of 90% of the display area on packs), Thailand (85%) and Australia (82.5%). These amendments were passed following the recommendations from an expert group constituted by the Union ministry of health and family welfare and were based on evidence that larger warnings, with a mixture of pictures and words, served as a stronger deterrent to tobacco use.

Even more shocking is the claim that there is no Indian study to suggest that tobacco use causes cancer. There are, indeed, numerous studies including those commissioned by the government of India’s health ministry that show a link between tobacco use and various diseases, including cancer of the lungs and mouth. After the new rules were passed in October 2014, the health ministry received several thousands of representations from tobacco industry groups. Numerous petitions challenging the constitutionality of the new pack warnings were filed in courts by tobacco companies and industry lobbyists.

The tobacco industry’s influence on scientific research as well as government regulation and policy is an important part of the tobacco story. In a compelling piece in the American Journal of Public Health, the Harvard historian of medicine, Allan Brandt, describes how in the face of scientific evidence of the harms of smoking, the tobacco industry has, from the 1950s, been using sophisticated public relations to undermine and distort emerging science.

Unconvincing Science

The modern problem of conflict of interest with the tobacco industry began several decades ago. We can see how it is manifesting in India. One of the tobacco industry’s old strategies has been to claim uncertainty to scientific facts, to claim that the health dangers of tobacco were “not proven”, to create doubt over scientific studies and use this tactic to fight regulatory measures.

The interests of tobacco companies are naturally to maximise shareholder returns. Governmental policies such as the recent amendments increasing the size of health warnings would reduce cigarette sales and are, therefore, antithetical to the industry’s interests. Hence, it is crucial that the tobacco industry has no role to play in the shaping of public health regulations. This distance has, unfortunately, not been maintained.

Recognising the “fundamental and irreconcilable” conflict of interest between the tobacco industry and governments’ public health goals, the World Health Organization’s Framework Convention for Tobacco Control (FCTC), signed and ratified by India in 2005, specifically states in Article 5.3 that “parties in setting and implementing their public health policies with respect to tobacco control, shall act to protect these policies from commercial and vested interests of the tobacco industry”.

The FCTC further provides guidelines to assist governments in ensuring that they do not fall prey to the tobacco industry’s tactics when framing tobacco control legislation. These guidelines include limiting interactions with the tobacco industry, ensuring that any interactions that do occur are transparent, and establishing policies to keep a check on pecuniary or other interests that public officials and government employees may have in the tobacco industry.

Despite being one of the earliest signatories to the FCTC, India has done little in the way of addressing conflict of interest and implementing Article 5.3. Ties between the government and the tobacco industry that would amount to a serious conflict of interest continue to exist. First, the Tobacco Board that was established under the Tobacco Board Act, 1975, whose mandate is to promote the interests of tobacco growers and the development of the tobacco industry, has not been dismantled. Second, public sector corporations such as the Life Insurance Corporation have made huge investments in tobacco companies. Third, representatives of the tobacco industry have easy access to bureaucrats and ministers without their interactions being made public or transparent.

Going Up in Smoke

Not addressing these serious conflicts of interest has resulted in the industry winning over and succeeding in having the new health warnings kept in abeyance.

We need new policies to mitigate the increasingly powerful influence of the tobacco industry on the government as they seriously affect the public interest. Such policies should put in place checks and safeguards for the government against possible conflicts of interest. If such measures to guard against industry influence are not put in place, the very purpose that any new public health regulation seeks to achieve risks being impaired and taken over by industry groups with a completely different set of goals and interests.

The recent pack warnings debacle is a stark example of the vested interests of the tobacco industry coming in the way of the government’s public health goals.

(The writers are with the Centre for Law and Policy Research, Bengaluru)

Scotland’s biggest public sector pension scheme under fire for £83m stake in arms manufacturers

Scotland’s largest local authority pension scheme has been criticised after it emerged it has investments worth £83 million in 11 of the 20 companies with the biggest global involvement in arms manufacture.

Scotland’s largest local authority pension scheme has been criticised after it emerged it has investments worth £83 million in 11 of the 20 companies with the biggest global involvement in arms manufacture.
The Glasgow City Council-administered Strathclyde Pension Fund has had shares worth £19.6 million, as of December last year, in the top two arms-producing and military services companies alone, Lockheed Martin, the manufacturer of Trident nuclear weapons, and Boeing.

The pension scheme, one of the biggest in the world with net assets of more than £13.9 billion, pays 70,000 pensioners and has a further 130,000 members either paying into the fund or waiting to retire from 12 local authorities including Glasgow from the former Strathclyde area, plus over 200 other large and small employers.

The value of the Top 20 arms firms investment has risen by £26 million in years to December, 2014 helped in part with the purchase of a new stake in UK-based Rolls Royce now worth £13.1 million.

Other firms being invested in included in the top 20 arms producers in terms of sales as compiled by the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, include Safran (£17.2 million), Honeywell (£16.4 million), United Technologies (£7.1 million) and Raytheon (£2.3 million) which has an arms manufacturing plant in Glenrothes.

Lockheed Martin also offers IT services and in 2013 took over a Scottish Government e-procurement contract worth £18.5m.

Pension schemes have previously been under scrutiny for investments in companies dealing in arms and tobacco.

In January, last year, it emerged more than £220 million was tied up in tobacco firms from Scots public sector pensions – including those behind Marlboro, Benson & Hedges and Lucky Strike – despite guidelines that recommend ethical and social factors must be taken into account by Scots councils administering the funds.

Some £55 million was estimated to have been invested in the world’s 10 largest arms sellers who trade in high-explosive shells, rocket launchers, armoured tanks and F-16 fighter jets.

The figures obtained under freedom of information legislation showed only two councils that administer pension schemes, Dumfries and Galloway and Shetland, had no involvement in tobacco or companies selling arms.

A Glasgow City Council spokesman said while it employs the staff and its committee tends to be made up of Glasgow-elected members, the SPF has its own committee structure and governance which is responsible for investment strategy. He said the council cannot make decisions for the fund.

He added: “The fund is a signatory to and active participant in the United Nations Principles for Responsible Investment – and we have appointed independent monitors to ensure these principles are adhered to by our investment managers.

“We take our social responsibilities seriously and are recognised as a fund that is showing leadership both nationally and internationally in actively engaging with the companies in which we invest to challenge them to address risks and improve performance.”

Independent Highlands and Islands MSP John Finnie, who has campaigned against the arms trade, believes change is required across the board.

“If there is any set of rules that says it is acceptable to be investing in these arms companies then we need to look at the rules,” he said. “The public look for moral leadership in the public sector and sadly that is not always obvious.”

Andrew Smith of the Campaign Against Arms Trade said: “Glasgow City Council is meant to be committed to public welfare and the public good, and should not be investing in companies that directly profit from war and conflict around the world.

“The arms trade is a deadly and illegitimate industry and people across Glasgow will be shocked to find that the council is using their money to boost companies that arm dictators and human rights abusers.”

Jenny Graydon, chief executive of Glasgow Association for Mental Health, one of the participants in the pension scheme, called for a review of the investments.

Raising the minimum buying age for tobacco could mean fewer people start to smoke

In 2005, the Boston suburb of Needham tried a new tactic to reduce youth tobacco use: the town raised the legal age for purchasing tobacco from 18 to 21. The results were dramatic – tobacco use among high school students dropped almost in half, and Needham’s decline in high school smoking rates far outpaced the surrounding suburbs.

In the past two years, communities around the country have begun to follow Needham’s lead. To date, more than 50 communities in seven states have raised their tobacco sales age to 21, including New York City in 2014. And the momentum keeps growing. And at least 10 state legislatures are now considering Tobacco 21 legislation.

Earlier this month, the Institute of Medicine (IOM), which is part of the National Academy of Sciences, released a 335-page report detailing the benefits of raising the tobacco sales age to 21, which would match the minimum age for purchasing alcohol.

Of all the options for addressing tobacco use, why are Tobacco 21 policies catching on? Why do they work?

Tobacco use is a ‘pediatric epidemic’

Think about the people you know who smoke. How many of them smoked their first cigarette before age 21? How many of them wish they had never smoked that first cigarette? The likely answer to both of these questions is: all of them.

The US Surgeon General has referred to tobacco use as a “pediatric epidemic,” because it almost always begins in youth. Indeed, despite all we know about the harms of tobacco, it is still the case that one in four high school seniors is a smoker and youth tobacco rates have barely budged over the past decade.

Of those who begin smoking as youth, 80% will smoke into adulthood, and one-half of all adult smokers will die prematurely from tobacco-related diseases.

The flip side of tobacco use being a “pediatric epidemic” is that the likelihood of starting to smoke declines markedly with age. The older you are, the less likely you are to start smoking. Although the tobacco industry has been increasingly targeting college-age students with its marketing, it remains the case that if someone makes it through high school without smoking, it is unlikely that he or she will ever start.

The tobacco industry has recognized this for years. In a 1982 memo, a researcher from the tobacco company R J Reynolds stated: “If a man has never smoked by age 18, the odds are three-to-one he never will. By age 21, the odds are twenty-to-one.”

Why do Tobacco 21 policies work?

Tobacco 21 policies are effective because they make it much more difficult for middle and high school students to access tobacco. This is because youth tobacco experimentation and use is driven by legal tobacco sales, not by illegal ones.

Today, at least in most places, 18- and 19-year-olds can legally purchase tobacco products and then supply them to younger kids (who, at least in the early stages of smoking, only use cigarettes occasionally). Raising the minimum age to 21 puts legal purchasers outside the social circle of most high school students.

Of course, raising the tobacco sales age to 21 will not keep all high school students from finding ways to access tobacco products, but the experience in Needham suggests it will significantly reduce the amount of youth tobacco use.

Given the scope of the problem – more than 3,800 kids under the age of 18 start smoking every day – the public health benefits could be enormous. Using conservative assumptions, the IOM study concluded that a nationwide Tobacco 21 policy would avoid nearly 250,000 premature deaths among those born between 2000 and 2019. Other public health benefits, such as a reduction in low birth weight and pre-term births, would be far more immediate.

We also now know that a legal age of 18 for tobacco is out of touch with what the scientific evidence says about adolescent brain development. As discussed in the recent book The Teenage Brain, brains do not fully mature until people reach their early 20s (and possibly later).

For a still-developing brain, exposure to nicotine causes long-term neurological harm; in essence, the addiction to nicotine gets hard-wired into the developing brain. This leads to a stronger nicotine addiction and makes it much more difficult to quit later on. For this reason, the recent explosion in youth e-cigarette use is deeply troubling, and Tobacco 21 policies should also include e-cigarettes, hookahs and other products that deliver nicotine.

18 is not a magic number

Federal law prohibits the FDA from raising the tobacco sales age above 18; only Congress can do that for the nation as a whole – and it’s hard for Congress to get anything done these days. But every state and most communities have the legal authority to adopt Tobacco 21 laws, which is exactly what they are starting to do.

The opposition to this emerging movement (primarily tobacco companies and tobacco retailers) chants “old enough to vote, old enough to smoke.” But tobacco use is not a right or a privilege; it is an addictive and deadly activity.

For the overwhelming majority of smokers, tobacco use is not in fact an “adult choice;” it is the result of an addiction that began when they were in high school or younger, and one that they are trying hard to kick.

There is nothing natural or unchangeable about a minimum age of 18. In traditional British common law, the “age of majority” (adulthood) was 21. In the US, the voting age was not lowered from 21 to 18 until 1971, but soon thereafter states began raising their drinking age from 18 to 21 when they realized that teens were disproportionately responsible for drunk driving accidents.

More recently, states that have sanctioned the legal use of marijuana – a drug far less deadly than tobacco – have set 21 as the minimum age. In short, it has long been the case that there are different minimum ages at different times and for different purposes.

Something we can agree on

Because no one (except for tobacco companies) wants the next generation to smoke, raising the minimum age to 21 is one tobacco control policy that nearly everyone can agree upon. It’s no surprise then, that a recently published study found that more than seven in 10 adults favored increasing the tobacco sales age to 21, including strong majorities in every demographic category (including current smokers and 18-20 year olds). This is the rare policy measure that is bipartisan, popular, and effective. What are we waiting for?

Over 170 tobacco trafficking suspects arrested in Hong Kong phone sales crackdown

Pupils, housewives and jobless people detained in raids on public housing estates

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A record number of more than 170 suspected tobacco traffickers and buyers have been rounded up since the start of the year as customs continues to target telephone orders for illicit cigarettes.

The figure was more than triple that recorded in the same three months of last year, a senior customs officer said, partly because of enhanced enforcement and cooperation with the Housing Department to stamp out the trade at public residential estates.

Customs will be extending its operation to public estates in the northwestern New Territories later this year, after focusing on Kowloon East last year.

“The crackdown on phone-order services for illicit cigarettes will continue. We will spare no efforts in combating such illegal trade,” Wan Hing-chuen, divisional commander with the Customs and Excise Department, said yesterday, expecting more arrests to follow.

In July, customs teamed up with housing authorities to widen its intelligence network.

Information from the Housing Department, covering 29 Kowloon East estates, yielded 28 arrests and the confiscation of 40,000 illegal cigarettes in the first three months of this year.

The 28 were among 172 people arrested in 168 cases of phone orders in which 280,000 cigarettes were found.

This compares with 53 cases uncovered during the same period last year, with 57 arrests and the seizure of 970,000 cigarettes.

Wan said those arrested this year included tobacco traffickers and buyers.

“Traffickers included pupils, housewives and jobless people, while buyers included construction site workers, the elderly and hair-salon employees,” he said.

He said one of the pupils was a 15-year-old boy who earned HK$10 per carton – containing 10 packs of illicit cigarettes – he delivered. It is understood that some of the arrests were made by officers who posed as customers and placed phone orders with traffickers.

On Tuesday, customs officers followed a delivery van to a storage place of illegal cigarettes in a remote Tin Shui Wai village. They arrested two men aged 40 and 42 and discovered HK$1.1 million of illicit cigarettes.

In the whole of last year, the city recorded 318 cases of phone orders in which 329 people were arrested and HK$8.1 million worth of cigarettes were seized. In 2013, officers detected 195 cases and arrested 225 people with HK$5.4 million worth of cigarettes.

Source URL (modified on Apr 2nd 2015, 12:55am):

Lebanon imposes $2.3M in fines on tobacco sellers

BEIRUT: Authorities carried out 415 raids against tobacco sellers across Lebanon last month and imposed more than $2 million in fees on smugglers and tax evaders, the Finance Ministry announced Thursday.

“From March 2, and during 20 days only, 415 raids were performed and 165 fees were imposed on smugglers,” Minister Ali Hasan Khalil told a news conference, adding that the fees totaled a value of LL3.5 billion ($2.3 million).

Khalil made the announcement at a news conference after touring the facilities of state-run tobacco company Regie. Khalil and the head of the company spoke about joint efforts to crack down on tax-evasion and tobacco smuggling.

“We have set new plans for this year, and they include rising the penalties on smuggling and fining importers for all products they smuggle,” Khalil said.

The crackdown has also targeted counterfeit products. A number of machines used in illegal packaging of cigars had also been confiscated.

The Finance Ministry last month encouraged individuals aware of tobacco smuggling to notify authorities for a financial reward.

The news came amid a recent crackdown carried out by the Finance Ministry against corruption at the Customs Department and real estate sector

What is flakka? Florida’s dangerous new drug trend

CBS NEWS – Police in south Florida have seen a growing number of cases of bizarre and uncontrollable behavior linked to a street drug called flakka, one of the newer chemicals in the booming category of synthetic or designer drugs.

In Fort Lauderdale last month, a man tried to break down the front door of a local precinct and told police officers he was high on flakka. A few weeks later, another man who said he had just smoked flakka impaled himself while trying to scale a fence around the police station. In Lake Worth, a city in Palm Beach County, a man armed with a gun — and naked — stood on a rooftop and announced, “I feel delusional, and I’m hallucinating!” He told authorities he had vaped flakka with an e-cigarette.

Flakka and bath salts are both drugs classified as cathinones.  DEA

Flakka and bath salts are both drugs classified as cathinones.

Flakka is a designer drug that can be snorted, smoked, injected or swallowed. It may also be combined with other, softer drugs such as marijuana.

Flakka is most typically made from the chemical alpha-PVP, which is a synthetic version of the amphetamine-like stimulant cathinone. Cathinones are chemicals derived from the khat plant grown in the Middle East and Somalia, where the leaves are frequently chewed for a euphoric buzz.

It’s the same class of chemical that’s used to make so-called bath salts, a drug that was found to be behind a number of alarming incidents, including the case of a man in Miami who allegedly chewed another man’s face while high on bath salts in 2012.

The immediate and long-term effects of cathinones can rival some of the strongest crystal meth and cocaine.

Jim Hall, an epidemiologist at the Center for Applied Research on Substance Use and Health Disparities at Nova Southeastern University in Broward County, Florida, told CBS News that cathinones are the next, even more potent class of drugs to take over where MDMA leaves off. MDMA, known widely as Molly, has been the cause of a number of fatalities and the recent round of overdoses that hospitalized a dozen people at Wesleyan University.

Hall says the drug is designed to cause the brain to flood with dopamine, a hormone that helps control the brain’s reward and pleasure centers, and then block the transmitters, producing an intense feeling of euphoria. “Normally when dopamine would be released, even naturally or even with other drugs, it then gets reuptaked — it goes back to its original transmitting neuron,” said Hall. “But in this case, its reuptake is blocked so it remains there.”

Taking additional flakka while already high — a practice known as “snacking” — or combining cathinones with other drugs often leads to serious health complications including rapid heart rate, agitation, extreme aggression and psychosis.

“We’re starting to see a rash of cases of a syndrome referred to as excited delirium,” said Hall. “This is where the body goes into hyperthermia, generally a temperature of 105 degrees. The individual becomes psychotic, they often rip off their clothes and run out into the street violently and have an adrenaline-like strength and police are called and it takes four or five officers to restrain them. Then once they are restrained, if they don’t receive immediate medical attention they can die.”

Cathinone use can also cause rhabdomyolysis, which is a melting of the muscle tissue and the release of muscle fibers into the blood stream. This can lead to kidney failure and result in a user needing permanent dialysis.

The drug’s name appears to have several meanings, says Hall. The word flaca means skinny in Spanish. “When we first heard the word we thought it was referring to the fact that it’s a strong stimulant, almost all stimulants have an appetite depressant quality to them, an almost anorexic quality.”

But Hall said flakka is also a Hispanic colloquial word that means a “beautiful, elegant woman who charms all she meets.” The drug name also may be associated with a famous hip-hop artist Waka Flocka Flame.

In recent years there’s been a rise in the number of national crime lab reports for cathinones, along with a decline in cases involving MDMA, which is the active chemical in both Molly and Ecstasy.



Hall says designer drugs like flakka are not always pure, which means that frequently the customer and dealer don’t actually know what’s in the product. Hall says that in 2013 there were a total of 126 reported deaths tied to synthetic cathinone in Florida.

“One of the kind of 21st century trends in drug supply is creating new brand names like flakka and building its popularity and then selling anything,” said Hall, who authored a report on the designer drug market in Florida. “Elsewhere in the country [flakka is] actually quite a popular drug. It’s often sold under the street name gravel because of its crystal, small, lumped-up appearance that looks like grainy pebbles or gravel in an aquarium.”

Hall added that there have been recent reports of a designer drug marketed as flakka in Ohio and Houston as well as Florida.

Flakka is one of a number of cathinone-based drugs that are produced in China and sold online to small-time drug gangs in the U.S. And the business is lucrative. Hall says that with small investment of only a few thousand dollars, a dealer can walk away with as much as $75,000.

“The main issue with this whole category is that the user just doesn’t know what they’re taking or the strength of what they’re taking, and literally they are the guinea pigs,” he said. “We’re referring to these as the guinea pig drugs. Often the dealer might not even know what they’re selling.”