A close up shot of a man smoking a cigarette Yasser Al-Zayyat/Getty Images

Smoking Out Big Tobacco

Recent investigations have provided damning evidence of what those in the public health community have known for decades: Big Tobacco, in its relentless pursuit of profit, works hard to block and weaken consumer protections. It is time to prevent that industry – and others working from its playbook – from influencing public policy.

BOSTON – Recently, the tobacco industry’s lack of respect for people’s lives, international law, and national sovereignty has been placed under a spotlight. Investigations carried out by the likes of the World Health Organization (WHO) and the Guardian newspaper have provided damning evidence of what we in the public health community have known for decades: Big Tobacco, in its relentless pursuit of profit, is subverting, blocking, and weakening public health protections in any way it can.

As the investigations showed, corporations like Philip Morris International (PMI) and British American Tobacco have often used covert tactics, outright bullying, and illicit activities to block progress on the WHO’s Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (FCTC), established in 2003. Now, the United Kingdom’s Serious Fraud Office (SFO) has confirmed that it is investigating British American Tobacco for a conspiracy of bribery in Central and East Africa.

That is a start. But, given the fundamental conflict between the tobacco industry’s interests and public-health objectives, health practitioners and governments around the world must do more to prevent Big Tobacco from interfering in official policy. Indeed, they must erect an unbreachable firewall between policymaking and the industry at the national and international levels.

This idea is embedded in Article 5.3 of the FCTC. The need for that provision was made apparent by internal tobacco-industry documents released through the Tobacco Master Settlement Agreement, reached between the four largest US tobacco corporations and the attorneys general of 46 US states in 1998. Those documents revealed, for example, that Philip Morris Companies (then the parent of PMI) viewed the WHO as a threat and sought “countermeasures” to “contain/neutralize/re-orient” it.

Recent investigations show that PMI targeted global tobacco treaty meetings, wooing delegates, and stacking delegations with industry-friendly trade ministers. BAT, for its part, has taken aim at national lawmakers, reportedly bribing officials in parts of East Africa to block or subvert public policy and force its way into the market, in order to get a new generation in Africa addicted to its product.

All of this has resulted in delayed progress in implementing lifesaving public-health protections around the world – though it hasn’t stopped them. Dozens of governments have already begun to implement measures in line with the global tobacco convention’s conflict-of-interest provisions. For example, Norway has divested more than $2 billion from the tobacco industry. The European Union has terminated its controversial agreement with PMI on tackling illicit trade. And the Philippines has barred public officials from interacting with the tobacco industry unless absolutely necessary.

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With such measures, governments are prioritizing people’s health over the industry’s profits. After all, without Big Tobacco at the table, they are more likely to succeed in implementing measures for reducing smoking rates, whether tried-and-true policies like prohibiting cigarette marketing, or newer measures, such as eliminating branding from cigarette packages. Taken together, these actions are saving millions of lives.

More countries must urgently implement similar policies. And to do so, they must ensure that they employ processes and policies that are in line with Article 5.3, thereby preventing the industry from subverting their initiatives to reduce smoking rates and improve public health.

But Big Tobacco is not the only industry attempting to undermine the public good for the sake of its own interests. That is why international legal frameworks like the FCTC must be developed for other industries that are using Big Tobacco’s playbook to weaken public-health legislation and environmental regulations that affect their own lines.

The good news is that there is increasing awareness of the use of such tactics not just by Big Tobacco, but also by other similarly powerful industries. At the most recent meeting of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, for example, the fossil-fuel industry’s interference in the talks was a central issue.

Now, calls to prevent powerful industries such as Big Oil, Big Pharma, and Big Food from undermining, diluting, or delaying sound policies that advance the public interest are growing louder. The recent SFO investigation and media exposés should reinforce this shift, serving as a powerful incentive for governments to implement stronger conflict-of-interest measures – on tobacco and other issues – at the international and national levels.

Today, there are powerful corporations – from the tobacco and pharmaceutical industries to those engaged in water privatization and climate change – bent on reaping profit at the expense of people’s lives and the environment. They have little regard for democratic processes, and, as we now know, they will stop at nothing to undermine any process that could interfere with business as usual. The only way to prevent them from doing so is to kick them out of the room. We have the tools to do it. We just need to use them.


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