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April 20th, 2015:

Big tobacco quietly battling religious opposition to smoking in key Muslim markets: Canadian study

The tobacco industry has been waging a sort of religious war for decades, recruiting Islamic scholars and crafting theological arguments to counter a feared Muslim opposition to smoking, a new, Canadian co-authored study suggests.

The companies’ tactics have included courting Muslim experts at McGill University and portraying religious objections to tobacco as a form of extremism – at odds with freedom and modernism generally, the analysis of years of industry documents reveals.

“The industry has sought to distort and misinterpret the cultural beliefs of these communities, and to reinterpret them to serve the industry’s interests,” charges Kelley Lee, a global health-policy expert at Vancouver’s Simon Fraser University and one of the authors of the study. “All to sell a product that kills half of its customers.”

With smoking on the decline in the West, Muslim countries in the Middle East and southeast Asia are among the most important markets for the sector, notes Prof. Lee.

Yet for at least three decades, companies have fretted about the menace posed by Muslim ideology in those places, memos and reports unearthed by Prof. Lee and her colleagues indicate. A 1996 British American Tobacco (BAT) document, for instance, describes the “Islamic threat,” including rising fundamentalism, as a “real danger” to the industry.

“This amounts to us having to prepare to fight a hurricane,” the memo warns.

An industry-linked law firm’s presentation proposed a theological retort to such pressures. The Koran does not actually prohibit use of tobacco, and “making rules beyond what Allah has allowed is a sin in itself,” the firm advised.

The study suggests Muslim thinking on the topic has changed over the years, but because of health reasons, not growing conservativism. Muslim jurists in the past generally considered tobacco use neutral, but as its risks became better known, some proclaimed it “markrooh” – discouraged – or even “haram” – prohibited, the paper says.

The material outlined in the study was drawn from the Legacy Tobacco Documents Library, a database of 15 million internal industry documents filed during lawsuits by U.S. states, most before 1998.

While the library did not provide access to the most recent documents, evidence suggests the companies are still trying to influence Muslim religious currents, said Prof. Lee, formerly with the U.K.’s London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine. A recent ad for Gauloises cigarettes in Qatar, for instance, depicts an Arab-looking woman without a headscarf, the tagline saying “Freedom Always.”

Bodies like the World Health Organization need to refute the industry-promoted idea that tobacco use in Muslim countries is an expression of escape from religious constraints, especially for women, the authors suggest.

Whether because of its religious-based strategies or not, the industry does appear to have thrived in many Muslim countries. While BAT sold fewer cigarettes worldwide in 2014 than the year before, the number increased in six countries, including Muslim Bangladesh, Iran, Turkey and Pakistan, a company report said.

The internal industry documents showed that companies first recognized in the 1970s that Islam posed a threat to expansion in such regions – a “formidable obstacle to the industry,” as one 1991 memo said.

This amounts to us having to prepare to fight a hurricane

The industry began years ago depicting that kind of stance as extremist, and suggested that even the WHO was part of the movement. The UN agency has “joined forces with Muslim fundamentalists who view smoking as evil,” complained one Philip Morris document. A BAT report in 2000 suggested the WHO’s efforts to link smoking and Islam had borne fruit and needed to be “managed.”

A tobacco lobbyist told Philip Morris in 1985 to portray anti-smoking Muslims as fundamentalists, and suggest their strict reading of Sharia law would lead to other curbs on modern living.

A consultant told BAT in a 1987 letter that he had repeatedly managed to stop a Muslim government from issuing booklets that linked an anti-smoking message to verses of the Koran. “Once the religious aspect is conveyed to the public … it will be very difficult to reverse the situation,” he warned.

A Philip Morris document from the same year relates how a representative of the Canadian Tobacco Manufacturers’ Council was contacting McGill University’s Islamic studies department to seek out academics who would refute any suggestion the Koran forbids smoking.

BAT approached Cairo’s Al Azhar University in 1996 to enlist scholars “as our authoritative advisers/allies and occasionally spokespersons on the issue.” But a memo mentioning the initiative urged caution.

“This is an issue to be handled extremely gingerly and sensitively,” it said. “We have to avoid all possibilities of a backlash

Tax hike drives tobacco firms into corner

YANGSAN, South Gyeongsang Province ― Philip Morris Korea suffered a sales drop of nearly 18 percent in the first quarter, year-on-year because of a hike in tobacco prices driven by the government’s cigarette tax increase of 2,000 won ($1.85) in January.

The company’s domestic sales are expected to decline further as the number of smokers falls because of the government’s anti-smoking measures and, in the long run, low birth rates.

Against the odds, the Korean unit of the multinational cigarette maker is trying to secure sustainable growth. And one way of doing this is by increasing exports.

“We are trying hard to increase exports (of cigarettes produced in Korea) to make up for domestic losses,” Kim Byung-cheol, director of Philip Morris Korea, told reporters at the firm’s factory. “Our products were proven to be competitive internationally.”

The company exported 4.5 billion cigarettes to Australia, Japan, Hong Kong, Taiwan and several other countries last year. It aims to ship 10 billion this year.

“We are trying to expand in the Asian market,” Kim said. “And things are progressing smoothly.” But he did not give details.

Kim said the company would try to rebound in the local market by developing new products that met the taste of Korean smokers. The launch of Marlboro Zing Fusion in early April was the latest move, he said.

He said that the company was considering developing new products with tobacco leaves harvested in Korea.

“We want to make a bigger contribution to the tobacco industry,” Kim said.

Asked about the cigarette tax hike, he said the policy had created various side effects that challenged tobacco companies’ bottom lines as well as public health.

“The tax hike has led to a steep increase in smuggling of low-priced foreign cigarettes into the nation,” Kim said. “There are many other side effects caused by the sudden and steep tax increase. The government should have increased the tax gradually, in proportion with the growth of gross domestic product.”

Philip Morris Korea’s sales last year were estimated at 703 billion won, with 188 billion won in operating profit.

How tobacco firms tried to undermine Muslim countries’ smoking ban

Attempts to tackle sales threat by framing criticism of smoking as fundamentalist fanaticism are outlined in cache of documents from 1970s until late 1990s

The tobacco industry attempted to reinterpret Islamic teaching and recruit Islamic scholars in a bid to undermine the prohibition on smoking in many Muslim countries, an investigation has shown.

Evidence from archived industry documents from the 1970s to the late 1990s shows that tobacco companies were seriously concerned about Islamic teaching. In 1996, an internal document from British American Tobacco warned that, because of the spread of “extremist views” from fundamentalists in countries such as Afghanistan, the industry would have to “prepare to fight a hurricane”.

We had tobacco industry lawyers actually developing theological arguments, Prof Mark Petticrew

BAT and other companies, which were losing sales in affluent countries where anti-smoking measures had been introduced, devised strategies to counter this perceived threat to sales in places such as Egypt, Indonesia and Bangladesh, which have large populations of young people who smoke.

The industry was concerned that the World Health Organisation was encouraging the anti-smoking stance of Islamic leaders. A 1985 report from tobacco firm Philip Morris squarely blamed the WHO. “This ideological development has become a threat to our business because of the interference of the WHO … The WHO has not only joined forces with Moslem fundamentalists who view smoking as evil, but has gone yet further by encouraging religious leaders previously not active anti-smokers to take up the cause,” it said.

“A Moslem who attacks smoking generally speaking would be a threat to existing government as a ‘fundamentalist’ who wishes to return to sharia law,” says one of the archive documents. It adds: “Our invisible defence must be the individualism which Islam allows its believers … smoking and other signs of modern living should encourage governments to a point at which it is possible quietly to suggest their benefits.”

It adds: “With Islam we might ask what other aspects of modern living are similarly open to extremist demands for prohibition under strict interpretation of sharia: motion pictures, television, and art depicting the human being? Use of electronic amplification by muezzin calling from a minaret? The education of women?” the document says.

The earliest fatwa against tobacco was in 1602, but many scholars believed smoking cigarettes or taking tobacco in water pipes or other forms was harmless until evidence of the dangers to health began to emerge in the mid 20th century. Jurists pronounced that tobacco use was makrooh (discouraged). In many Islamic countries, a harder line was taken, with smoking prohibited on the grounds that the Qur’an does not permit self-harm or intoxication.

The WHO negotiated the Framework Convention on Tobacco Control, starting in 1999, in response to what it describes as the “explosive increase in tobacco use”. The convention, which outlines strategies intended to reduce demand, was adopted in 2003.

This is an issue to be handled extremely gingerly and sensitively

BAT internal document

A report in 2000 from the Consumer and Regulatory Affairs (Cora) department at BAT after the first international negotiations said: “It appears that the WHO’s efforts to link religion (specifically Islam) with issues surrounding the use of tobacco are bearing fruit … We will need to discuss separately how we might understand and manage this aspect in line with the Cora strategy.”

The tobacco industry attempted to re-interpret anti-smoking Islamic teachings. A 1996 BAT memo suggests identifying “a scholar/scholars, preferably at the Al Azhar University in Cairo, who we could then brief and enlist as our authoritative advisers/allies and occasionally spokespersons on the issue.

“We agreed that such scholars/authority would need to be paired up with an influential Moslem writer/journalist … such advice would present the most effective and influential opinion able to counter extremist views, which are generally peddled by Islamic fundamentalist preachers largely misinterpreting the Koran … This is an issue to be handled extremely gingerly and sensitively … We have to avoid all possibilities of a backlash.”

Tobacco industry lawyers were also involved in this attempt at revision. A presentation from 2000, prepared by the firm Shook, Hardy and Bacon, gave an overview of the background to Islam and smoking, with slides stating that there is no prohibition on smoking in the Qur’an – and that “making rules beyond what Allah has allowed is a sin in itself”.

Prof Mark Petticrew from the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, who led the research, said he was amazed by what researchers had found in the archives. “‘You couldn’t make it up’ comes to mind,” he said. “The thing that jumps out at me from all this is the fact that we had tobacco industry lawyers actually developing theological arguments. That was pretty surprising.”

A document suggest Philip Morris wanted to try to recruit Islamic scholars at McGill University in Montreal, Canada. A representative of the Canadian Tobacco Manufacturers’ Council “agreed to make exploratory contact”, it says. Petticrew and his team do not know whether they were successful. “We couldn’t find the papers,” he said.

The tobacco industry is still heavily promoting smoking in countries such as Bangladesh and Egypt, which are predominantly Muslim and have high proportions of smokers.

Its marketing is generally adapted to the “not overly devout”, says the study. The authors call for further research to find out how the industry had approached other faiths.

“The launch of the Faith Against Tobacco national campaign by Tobacco Free Kids and faith leaders in the US, for example, brings together Christianity, Islam, Judaism and other faiths ‘to support proven solutions to reduce smoking’. Understanding efforts by the industry to undermine the efforts of other faith communities brings to light a broader strategy to marginalise tobacco control in diverse communities, and refocuses the problem on tobacco-related health harms,” says the paper.

BAT told the Guardian. “This study, which concerns material written nearly 20 years ago, does not represent the views, policies and position of British American Tobacco. We are a global business that holds itself to strict standards of business conduct and corporate governance, manufacturing and marketing our products in accordance with domestic and international laws and observing the cultural and religious beliefs in the 200 countries in which we operate.”

Philip Morris did not respond to the Guardian’s request for comment.


The Cape Cod town of Eastham, Mass. has informed tobacco retailers that it is considering implementing a number of changes in the coming months and has invited them to provide comment either in person at a May 7 meeting or via e-mail.

Among the most significant changes is a proposal to raise the minimum age to purchase tobacco and other nicotine-delivery products from 18 to 21 years of age. The town is also seeking to ban all tobacco sales with 500 feet of schools, as well as banning the consumption of tobacco products in municipal owned parks, playgrounds, athletic fields and beaches while creating a 25-foot no-smoking buffer zone around municipal buildings.

Also up for debate will be implementing a minimum cigar package size and price, as well as bans on the sale of flavored tobacco and blunt wraps; bans on self service displays, vending machines and non-residential roll-your-own machines; and bans on tobacco sales in health care and educational institutions. The town would also implement a fine structure that mirrors state law.

A full copy of the letter sent to tobacco retailers by the town can be found here.

Eastham is home to approximately 5,000 residents and is located in the Cape Cod area of the state.