Addicted to Profit: Big Tobacco's Expanding Global Reach

By Ross Hammond


by Dr. Judith Mackay

It is only too easy to feel moments of real despair while reading this report. In spite of all the efforts of the health groups over the last 50 years, the tobacco industry -- like the universe in the Big Bang theory -- relentlessly expands outwards into hitherto unexplored regions.

As it expands, the industry creates more and more black holes that lure governments, smokers, athletes and many others. Health care facilities will be hopelessly inadequate to cope with this scenario; and the economic effects will be severe.

This report makes it clear, using more earthly examples, that the tobacco epidemic is being shifted from the rich to the poor countries, which have little experience in dealing with transnational tobacco industry executives and lawyers.

In the future, it is likely that the transnational tobacco companies will become even more belligerent than as described here by Ross Hammond: around the world they will continue to deny the health evidence, especially on passive smoking; persist in obstructing national government action with spurious arguments on "freedom" and the supposed impact of tobacco control measures upon the economy and employment; increase their marketing and promotion, which includes donations to political parties, governments, sports and arts bodies, universities and health organizations; to sue individuals, organizations, even governments; and to fight tobacco litigation in the courts.

These global aspects of the tobacco epidemic need to be taken much more seriously by policymakers and public health groups in the rich countries -- for moral, economic and political reasons. At the same time, people must take the time to understand how these companies work if they are to devise effective strategies for combating them. This report provides such information.

The report makes it clear that American laws or settlements that exclude the rest of the world or attempt to give the tobacco companies global immunity are unethical and will be ineffective from a public health perspective. Domestic success in combatting tobacco, or U.S. tobacco bills in the absence of global controls, may actually exacerbate tobacco problems in developing countries. The tobacco industry, like the malaria-carrying mosquito, operates across national boundaries, and a coordinated trans-border approach is needed.

International tobacco control advocates believe the following requirements should be included in any U.S. legislation to ensure it does not do harm outside the United States:

Unless this happens, America will be diminished in the eyes of the world. There have already been protests in Asian countries against the U.S. government using belligerent trade threats to open up tobacco markets, as described in this report.

Browsing the pages, I felt moments of particular outrage at some of the comments of the tobacco industry, for example, where Philip Morris International has the gall to accuse health advocates of getting rich -- "making money out of their activities!"

Also where Geoffrey Bible of Philip Morris calls the United States an "island of extremism" in terms of tobacco control. This statement has to be intended to deceive, as he must know very well that the United States is way behind many other countries in tobacco control legislation, such as Singapore, New Zealand, Norway and even Mongolia.

Another moment of outrage came when reading BAT CEO Martin Broughton's statement that BAT offers a useful product: "I think we give pleasure to a huge number of people around the world." The analogy with selling another addictive product -- opium -- to China in the 19th century is compelling. A lawyer for the then opium interests is quoted in the 1917 Encyclopedia Sinica: "Smoking is perfectly innocuous. It is on a par with tea drinking. The alleged effects of opium have been vastly exaggerated. The use of opium is not a curse but a comfort to the hard-working Chinese." The Encyclopedia noted that: "foreign merchants in China are making large fortunes by opium. The fact being that the trade is profitable to a very few merchants only..." This could have been written about Big Tobacco today, as farmers in Malawi and Zimbabwe, and even in the United States will know only too well.

This report demands immediate, robust, coordinated and sustained action by all governments, health professionals and the community at large, or the tobacco industry will keep on expanding forever.

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