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Investor mixes tobacco with lung clinics

A South African investment group has been strongly criticised for maintaining a controlling stake in a Swiss private hospital group, which treats patients for lung diseases, whilst at the same time investing funds in a tobacco firm.

The Swiss Lungenliga, an association that campaigns against the tobacco industry, has questioned whether the Hirslanden Group of private clinics is free to take an active stand against smoking while it is under the control of the investment vehicle Remgro.

Remgro is controlled by the South African Rupert family which initially made its money from tobacco and currently holds a stake in British American Tobacco, makers of the Lucky Strike and Parisienne cigarette brands. Since 2007, Remgro has owned Hirslanden’s parent company Mediclinic International.

“I find it extremely disturbing when such opposing interests are housed under the same roof,” Swiss Lungenliga director Sonja Bietenhard told the Nordwestschweiz newspaper. “I find it cynical and an ethical contradiction of the highest level.”

“Can [Hirslanden] fully engage in [helping people] stop smoking? Can it continue to criticise tobacco manufacturers? These are the questions I would like answered.”

Both Hirslanden and Remgro have declined to comment to the media. In 2007, shortly after taking over Mediclinic, the Mediclinic Chairman Edwin Hertzog told the Neue Zürcher Zeitung newspaper: “Smoking is a matter of personal choice.”

Smoking-related deaths

There is evidence that Hirslanden has continued to speak out against smoking since Remgro took over in 2007. For example, Karl Klingler, a specialist at Hirslanden’s lung clinic in Zurich penned a media article in 2012 with the headline “Stopping Smoking is the Best Medicine”. The article spelled out the health risks of smoking.

Since 1998, Hirslanden has run a clinic in Zurich with the express aim of helping people to quit smoking. That clinic is still operational.

But this has not assuaged the concerns of Lungenliga’s Bietenhard, who believes commercial interests have overridden health and ethical considerations. “From an economic perspective, I have some understanding for the investor who is only interested in making money,” she said ironically.

Last November, the Swiss health ministry produced a study on cancer that revealed that 9,500 people died of smoking-related illnesses in 2012, a figure that made up 15% of all recorded deaths in the country in that year.

While the number of deaths linked to tobacco products declined 13% in men between 1995 and 2012, the corresponding mortality rate of women rose 58%, the study revealed.

At the same time as the report’s publication, Health Minister Alain Berset put forward proposals to ban tobacco sales to under-18s and place restrictions of tobacco advertising. On May 1, 2010 Switzerland imposed a ban on smoking in public places to protect non-smokers from the effects of passive smoking.

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