Big Tobacco, Big Conflicts

The global tobacco industry is aggressively opposing and attacking health policies in every region of the world and attempting to sabotage the fundamental right of governments to implement life-saving tobacco control policies. The tobacco industry's multiple and devious tactics include legal and economic threats, funding front groups to oppose health policies, making political donations and funding mass media campaigns to discredit health policy.

The Framework Convention on Tobacco Control requires parties to the Convention to limit interactions with tobacco companies to a minimum and treat the tobacco industry differently from other industries because tobacco is the only legally available consumer product that kills people when used as intended. Tobacco is addictive and deadly and, unlike any other consumer product, cannot be used without risk; and the industry's behaviour has all along been dubious.

US litigation in 1998 forced tobacco corporations to turn over millions of previously secret internal documents, reviews of which have shown that although tobacco companies knew their products were addictive, harmful and killed their consumers, they deliberately hid this knowledge while publicly denying the addictiveness of tobacco and the dangers of tobacco use and exposure to second-hand smoke. They targeted young people with advertising and promotions to perpetuate the use of their products. They continue doing this, along with delaying, diluting and defeating global efforts to discourage tobacco use and protect people from second-hand smoke.

In India, the manufacturing of tobacco and tobacco substitutes are under the list of prohibited items for foreign direct investment. The Law Ministry has said it favors the Commerce Ministry's move to ban FDI in wholesale trading in tobacco as well. Under the guidelines, foreign tobacco companies bringing in money for branding and advertising, while selling to retailers directly, can do so only by their Indian joint venture partner.

Yet, as elsewhere, the tobacco industry has gone all out to undermine public health. Its efforts include avoiding marketing restrictions under the garb of "corporate social responsibility" activities; donating or investing money in political parties and governments institutions; resorting to surrogate advertising and point of sale ads; making continuous efforts to delay, dilute and water down pictorial warnings over the years; spot advertising and brand placement in films. There are numerous examples to substantiate that Big Tobacco is like a typhoon out to devastate human lives in India.

India's second largest tobacco company, Godfrey Philips, presents Godfrey Phillips Bravery National Awards every year—an event which is generally graced (?) by political bigwigs and film stars, among others. This year the awards were presented by Kapil Sibal, Minister for Communications and Information Technology in Delhi. Last year Salman Khurshid, the then Union Law Minister was the chief guest at the programme held in Chandigarh.

India's largest tobacco company, ITC, was presented with the 2012 World Business and Development Award for its rural initiatives in social and farm forestry programs in India around the Rio+20 United Nations Summit at Rio de Janeiro. But later the UNDP head said to a CNS member in a written communication that it was an 'oversight' and measures will be taken to never again engage with the tobacco industry.

There have also been instances of investments by Public Financial Institutions in tobacco companies. According to media reports, the Life Insurance Corporation of India and the United Trust of India have invested in ITC Limited-- LIC (93,52,41,572 shares), UTI (89,68,68,810 shares). Then again under a right to information disclosure, the Union government was forced to reveal that in 2009-10 ITC made donations to several political parties, including the Congress, the BJP, Samajwadi Party, Rashtriya Janata Dal, DMK, Shiv Sena and the Nationalist Congress Party.

The tobacco industry has time and again been instrumental in diluting or delaying pictorial health warnings. Due to tobacco industry pressure on the Indian government, implementation of pictorial warnings was delayed for two years, during which time the government replaced stronger warnings with milder ones, reduced the size of the warnings from 50 percent of the principal display area to 40 percent. Finally pack warnings came into effect on 31 May 2009.

According to news published in The Economic Times the failure of the government lawyer to turn up on the dates appointed for hearings over the point of sale of tobacco advertisement case was quite intriguing and an indication of intense tobacco industry pressure on the government. The tobacco industry again protested against the replacement of the then existing pictorial warnings with newer and effective field tested ones, due to which the implementation of new field tested warnings got delayed for one and a half years.

Despite evidences which suggest that smoking scenes in films are the biggest cause of early initiation of tobacco use by the youth, Indian films continue to depict smoking scenes albeit accompanied by a statutory warning that smoking is injurious to health.

Miffed at the government's stand on several such blatant interferences by the tobacco industry, the Supreme Court in one of its recent orders blamed the government for 'conniving' with tobacco companies. Citing the health hazards of tobacco, the top tribunal said: "Of course, you [Central government] are not bothered. You are more bothered about money."

"Any such act that gives legitimacy to tobacco firms is against the spirit of the law enacted against tobacco in 2003, which was done in line with the WHO Framework Convention on Tobacco Control [FCTC]," says Indian lawyer and activist Prashant Bhushan.

India currently boasts around 275 million tobacco users and over 1 million tobacco-related deaths every year. According to Global Adult Tobacco Survey 2010, an estimated 34.6 percent of adults use some form of tobacco--25.9 percent are smokeless tobacco users, while 5.7 percent smoke cigarettes and 9.2 percent smoke bidis, or hand-rolled cigarettes. One variant of chewing tobacco called gutka, a mixture of tobacco, areca nut, catechu, paraffin, slaked lime and sweet flavourings, is widely popular in the masses. It is known to be highly addictive and causative of oral cancer and periodontal and other diseases.

The Supreme Court has banned the sale and manufacture of gutka and paan masala under the Food Safety and Standards Act 2011 clarifying that, "Since pan masala, gutka or supari are eaten for taste and nourishment, they are all food within the meaning of Section 2(v) of the Prevention of Food Adulteration Act."

The Food Safety and Standards act 2006, said "Tobacco and nicotine shall not be used as ingredients in any food products." Still the ban has yet to be imposed all over the country with some states still defaulting on it.

The government of Uttar Pradesh, a state with very high rates of oral cancer attributed to gutka chewing, enforced the ban only from April after several delays, perhaps due to intense lobbying from the tobacco industry. Also even in states where gutka is banned, the gutka industry has not lost its business and has come up with alternative ways to safeguard its profits.

With no ban imposed on chewing tobacco, the industry continues to reap a rich harvest by legally selling tobacco and mouth fresheners together but in different pouches. Gutka also continues to be sold illegally at increased prices in the absence of proper implementation of the ban.

Ehsaan Latif, Director of Tobacco Control at the International Union Against Tuberculosis and Lung Disease, explained the situation in a nutshell: "In countries where poverty is still a challenge, any donation by the tobacco industry is seen by the policy makers as a generous gift.

"These policy makers need to realize how the industry manipulates the system to interfere with public health policy and these 'charitable donations' only serve to open doors for the industry to expand their businesses, provide legitimacy to their actions and to block effective tobacco control policies. In the guise of helping a few people, they seek to impress the policy makers. Yet they do not take responsibility for the millions who have died pre-maturely from the use of their products. It is high time that governments in Southeast Asia adopt policies consistent with the tobacco convention and look at taxation of tobacco products as a sustainable source for tobacco control not these insignificant donations to subvert tobacco control."

(Shobha Shukla is Managing Editor of Citizen News Service. She has also co-authored and edited publications on childhood TB, childhood pneumonia, Hepatitis C Virus and HIV, violence against women and girls, and MDR)