Tobacco the Killer

Tobacco accounts for one in 10 of all deaths globally, killing nearly 6 million people each year, including 600,000 nonsmokers who are exposed to second-hand smoke. Ending advertising, promotion and sponsorship of tobacco is an essential goal to cutting down on those deaths.

Globally there are around 1 billion smokers today, two-thirds of whom live in the following 15 low‐ and middle‐income countries (in order by number of smokers): China, India, Indonesia, Russia, Bangladesh, Brazil, Mexico, Turkey, Pakistan, Egypt, Ukraine, Philippines, Thailand, Vietnam and Poland. Without urgent action, deaths from tobacco could reach 8 million by 2030, more than 80 percent of which will be among people living in these low- and middle-income countries.

Keeping in mind that tobacco is the single most preventable cause of death on planet earth today, the World Health Organization unified the international community behind a global public health treaty, formally known as the WHO Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (FCTC).

The FCTC enshrines the world's most effective tobacco control measures, and could save 200 million lives by 2050 if fully implemented. Article 5.3 of this treaty--which states that the tobacco industry has an irreconcilable conflict of interest with public health--is the backbone and the treaty cannot succeed if industry interference is not rooted out.

Also, a comprehensive ban of advertising and promotion is required under Article 13 of the FCTC for all parties ratifying the treaty. Statistics show that the removal alone can save lives by reducing tobacco consumption by an average of 7 percent. Yet, to date only 19 of the 176 signatory countries to the convention have fully comprehensive bans on advertising and promotion, thus fully protecting a mere 425 million people—6 percent of the world's population--from exposure to the tobacco industry tactics.

The primary purpose of advertising, promotion and sponsorships is to encourage youth to begin smoking and to keep current users hooked. Children are three times more sensitive to tobacco marketing than adults and are more likely to be influenced to smoke by marketing than by their peers. In fact, almost 90 percent of smokers smoked their first cigarette before the age of 18, and almost 25 percent of these began smoking before the age of 10. Hence they form a primary target for the tobacco industry's lethal marketing tactics. Eliminating Big Tobacco's ability to market its deadly products can stop new users from joining the bandwagon, saving millions of lives in the process.

Dr Anne Jones, from The Union who also is the CEO of Action on Smoking and Health Australia, rightly believes that "the biggest challenge is ending the tobacco industry's exploitation with a ban on their interference, political donations and Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR).

Big tobacco's lethal marketing strategies date back to 1955 when Philip Morris, the producer of Marlboro cigarettes, introduced the image of the rugged cowboy—the famous Marlboro Man—which increased the sale of its filtered cigarettes by more than 3000 percent within one year. The Marlboro Man is an example of a global-marketing strategy that pushed Philip Morris International to become the industry leader. However, few will remember that two of the actors who portrayed the 'Marlboro Man' died of lung cancer. The first was Wayne McClaren in 1992, at the age of 51. He spent many years after his lung cancer diagnosis promoting an anti-smoking campaign. The second Marlboro Man who succumbed to lung cancer in 1995 was David McClean. His family later filed a suit against Phillip Morris, citing he had to smoke sometimes five packs of cigarettes a day in order to complete commercial filming and print ad shoots.

Even as more and more countries adopt stringent tobacco control laws, tobacco companies are investing huge amounts of money in sophisticated chicanery to promote their products through surrogate advertising, sponsorships of social events, and engaging in their so-called corporate social responsibility activities intended to improve their image as socially acceptable entities and to persuade governments not to introduce policies that will reduce tobacco sales.

Recently, a local cigarette company in Jamaica--Carreras Ltd--launched 50 educational scholarships worth US$6 million under the guise of its CSR activities. This is nothing short of a subtle cigarette promotion campaign aimed at ensnaring young college-going students to a lifelong deadly habit and is rightly being opposed by tobacco control advocates. The company however has had the audacity to deny any advertisement motives for these awards, saying that they are simply giving back to society.

In India, Godfrey Phillips India Ltd is one of the largest players in the Indian cigarette industry. It manufactures some of the most popular brands in the country like FS1, Four Square, Red and White, Cavanders, and also manufactures and distributes the iconic brand Marlboro under a license agreement with Philip Morris. On the one hand it is jeopardizing the lives of millions of Indians by selling tobacco products (it reaped an estimated annual turnover of over Rs32 billion in 2011-2012), while on the other hand it unashamedly professes to enrich and energize the society through its social responsibility initiatives like the annual Godfrey Phillips Bravery Awards which purport to honor the uncommon acts of physical valor, social service and humanitarian deeds of the common man.

This year's Awards were recently presented by Kapil Sibal, Minister for Communication and IT and Bollywood actor–director Deepti Naval. Both of them are public figures and yet neither they nor the recipients thought it inappropriate to dance to the tunes of a poison peddling company by taking part in this farcical activity.

There seems to be a fundamental conflict of interest between the goals of the tobacco industry and the goals of governments in promoting public health. In the words of Dr. Margaret Chan, Director-General of the World Health Organization, "The tobacco industry behaves like a corrosive substance that can eat through, or seep through, any crack or fissure in the armor of our defenses. Our response must be to seal all these cracks and fissures, one by one, with science and evidence, supported by instruments for applying this knowledge and backed by the rule of law."

Tobacco industry interference has time and again weakened and delayed the enforcement of public health policies around the world. In India strong pictorial warnings on tobacco packs have been diluted and/or their implementation postponed several times in the past under immense lobbying from the tobacco industry.

The Indian Ministry of Health and Family Welfare admitted to the Central Information Commission that it is the tobacco industry pressure that is not letting it implement tobacco control health policies effectively.

The situation is worse in Indonesia where smoking kills more than 200,000 annually and where 70 percent of all Indonesian children less than 15 years of age are exposed to second hand smoke. According to Tara Singh Bam, Technical Advisor, Tobacco Control, at the International Union Against Tuberculosis and Lung Disease (The Union), "Indonesia can be best described as an advertiser's paradise, where tobacco industry's marketing, advertising, promotion and sponsorship is rampant in its largely unrestricted regulatory environment, resulting in nearly 80 percent of Indonesian smokers start before the age of 19 years. Although it has ratified the FCTC still Indonesia's tobacco control laws and regulations are completely blocked due to tobacco industry's aggressive interferences."

In Myanmar too enforcement of the country's tobacco control law of 2006 is weak due to industry interference. Dr Bam informed that recently the Union has signed an agreement with the Ministry of Health of Myanmar to ensure complete ban of tobacco advertisements, promotion and sponsorship, and endorse WHO FCTC article 5.3 preventing tobacco industry interferences.

Ehsan Latif, Director of Tobacco Control at the Union told Citizen News Service, "Bloomberg Initiative grants in Bangladesh and Pakistan are assisting the respective governments to set up implementation infra-structures for tobacco control laws already in place in order that the benefits reach the communities. The BI grants for these countries have been strengthened and backed up by a robust capacity building program which will lead to sustainability of these program. It is the responsibility of the governments to lead and fund tobacco control in their countries with a view to make the attainment of effective tobacco control much easier and sustainable in the years to come."

The ultimate goal is to protect present and future generations not only from devastating health consequences, but also against the social, environmental and economic scourges of tobacco use and exposure to tobacco smoke. We have to work together to achieve a world free of tobacco-related addiction, death and disease.