Believe it or not, Big Tobacco is still committed to limiting and preventing anti-smoking laws globally. They have set out to deter global anti-smoking laws by citing trade and investment treaties that are currently in effect, and would imply costly court battles for all parties concerned. This is the strategic response from Big Tobacco to a rising trend in anti-smoking legislation the world over, according to an article in today’s New York Times.
In 2012, Dr. Margaret Chan, director general of the W.H.O., delivered the keynote address at the 15th World Conference on Tobacco or Health in Singapore. In that speech, titled “Galvanizing global action towards a tobacco-free world ,” Dr. Chan alleged that legal actions taken against Uruguay, Norway and Australia had been “deliberately designed to instill fear” in countries trying to reduce smoking.
Yet, here we are, more than a year later, and the World Health Organization cannot make a dent in the agenda of Big Tobacco. We live in a world where there seems to be a toss-up when it comes to tobacco.
On the one hand, if you are in California, you cannot even light a cigarette if you are sitting at a restaurant table outside on the sidewalk. The state believes research indicates smoking is bad for our health.
However, in Kentucky people still smoke like it was going out of style. Of course, the state has always been the proud home of Big Tobacco in many ways.
So, which is more important: the freedom to live how people want to live, or the freedom to die how they want to die?
According to the United Nations, there are two global trends in tobacco use that are worth noting. The first trend is that over the past thirty years, 1970 to 2000, world tobacco consumption, production and trade have increased steadily. However, the second trend worth noting is that during the last decade, they have slowed down. This slowdown, and even decline in several cases, “is more pronounced in developed countries, while tobacco production and use is still increasing in the majority of developing countries.”
In light of this data, it all starts to make sense. Big Tobacco has set its sites on the developing world. This comes as no surprise when you consider a little more data. For example, among developing countries, China is the top tobacco smoking country in the world, with over one third of world tobacco production and consumption.
If it hurt Big Tobacco to get kicked off the sidewalks of San Francisco, can you imagine how much it will hurt when they ban tobacco in China? From the same U.N. report: “Tobacco consumption in China, although growing more slowly, is still increasing.” China is both a major importer and exporter of unmanufactured tobacco.
The entire continent of Africa is also trending significantly upward in recent years when it comes to cigarette sales. Overall, more than three-quarters of all cigarette smokers now live in the developing world.
Q: Who are the top tobacco exporters in the world?
A: Brazil, the United States, and India.
Q: Who are the top tobacco importers in the world?
A: The United States, the European Union, and Russia.
So, exactly how does Big Tobacco pursue its interests in developing nations?
Case in point: Namibia.
In an attempt to curtail smoking among young women, Namibia passed a tobacco control law in 2010. Quickly the government was bombarded with hostile warnings from the tobacco industry. The communications were designed to intimidate as Big Tobacco claimed that the new statute violated the country’s obligations under existing trade treaties.
“We have bundles and bundles of letters from them,” said Namibia’s health minister, Dr. Richard Kamwi.
That was three years ago. Today, an intimidated Namibian government has failed to follow through with enforcement of their own laws that limit advertising and require large health warnings on cigarette packaging.
Back in the U.S.A., this issue has come knocking on our door again because we are now set to complete talks on a major new trade treaty with 11 Pacific Rim countries. The USA wants this treaty to be a model for the rules of international commerce. That means Administration officials would like for the new treaty to raise the bar on standards for public health.
However, when the Administration recently singled out tobacco as a health concern, the wording upset the U. S. Chamber of Commerce, which said that regulating tobacco may also lead to regulating products like soda or sugar. That kind of regulation would be bad for business. They still have not finalized the language in the treaty.
So, it is not just a question of living or dying how you want that lies at the heart of this controversy. It is also a question of making money how you want, wherever, and whenever you want.
Tobacco opponents maintain the Big Tobacco strategy is intimidating low-to-middle-income countries from addressing cigarette smoking as a grave health threat. At the same time, the intimidating legal tactics only serve to undermine the world’s largest global public health treaty, the W.H.O. Framework Convention on Tobacco Control.
That brings us back to Dr. Chan, who wants to reduce smoking by enforcing limits on advertising, packaging, and the sale of tobacco products all over the world. More than 170 countries have signed the World Health Organization treaty since 2005.
It looks like part of the Administration likes Big Tobacco and part of it does not. Either way, the World Health Organization would like for people to consider that over five million people die every year of smoking-related causes, more than die from AIDS, malaria, and tuberculosis combined.
But, please do not kill this messenger.
By Alex Durig, Ph.D.