Written by Sinéad O’Ferrall
Edited by Helen Jane Myrr and Line Bager
This is not another article about how bad smoking is. It is not about how it harms your own health and the health of those who choose to spend time with you when you light up. It is not written to condemn the unpleasantness and social rudeness of the habit, when practised in public spaces, and not even about judging people who choose to light up despite knowing how bad it is for them.
We know smoking is an unhealthy habit. That is not breaking news, it is not even new news. We are well informed about the risks and have the right to make informed decisions even if they are unhealthy and socially disruptive. Right?
But what about the people who are not well informed? The ones in the developing countries who have not had the massive education campaigns we have experienced.
While in the USA, Europe and Australia people have been educated to the max about the health risks, the cancers, the destruction of your lungs, the consequences of secondhand smoke on innocent bystanders, that is not the case everywhere.
And the tobacco industry is exploiting the uninformed to continue their industry which should not even be allowed exist. If you haven’t figured it out yet, this article is about condemning the tobacco companies, not the smokers.
There has been a huge push by multiple governments and advising bodies to bring in tougher smoking laws and regulations, yet the tobacco industry will do anything to stop this for one reason, and one reason only – profit! They continue to fill their pockets with money as we continue to fill our cemeteries with dead smokers and second hand smoke victims. An annual 5 million graves to be specific.
It is incredibly disturbing how unethical the industry is and how they will target anyone they can. Given all the new bans on smoking, as well as plain packaging and increasing health awareness you would think the industry would be in trouble. But unfortunately this is not the case. It is actually stronger than ever. This is due to the ruthlessness of this industry. When you see a two year old smoking, you must recognise something has gone too far. Don’t believe a two year old would smoke? Then clearly you didn’t see the viral video of the poor Indonesian child addicted to cigarettes.
Let us look at two cases to show the extent Philip Morris International (PMI) and the likes will go to, to stop countries trying to improve the health of their populations and relieve the burden they place on the healthcare system.
Both of the cases have been highlighted quite well in John Oliver’s ‘Last Week Tonight’YouTube video series on tobacco, and I would highly recommend watching it.
Case 1: PMI and British America vs. Australia
In 2011, Australia passed a plain packaging law, banning tobacco company branding and instead including health warnings and pictures. And it was working: since the law was introduced, total consumption of tobacco was at an all-time low according to the Department of Health in Australia.
But to achieve this, they had to battle multiple lawsuits from multiple smoking companies. Despite the fact that Australia won the lawsuit and the tobacco companies had to cover the costs, it is beyond belief that a company can sue a country over a public health policy in an international court.
But if this lawsuit isn’t hard enough to believe, then consider Ukraine’s lawsuit against Australia. Ukraine sued Australia over the new tobacco laws despite having zero trade between the two countries. All done simply because British America, another big tobacco company paid for Ukraine’s legal fees.
Now Australia can counter these lawsuits but what happens when it is a poorer country trying to get off its feet in terms of economy and do right by its people at the same time? Consider the example of Uruguay.
Case 2: PMI vs Uruguay
Uruguay also attempted to bring in new tobacco regulations. But PMI sued Uruguay for damaging its business prospects. Uruguay introduced a series of new laws which resulted in 68% of smokers saying the laws should be stricter. So despite being welcomed by the locals, and having the positive effect the laws intended, PMI felt they had the right to influence a whole country’s own law. PMI sued Uruguay for 5 years which is, for such a small country, destabilising and detrimental. International bodies such as the WHO and Pan America have had to step in to help cover the legal costs.
So not only is the tobacco industry increasing the financial burden on small economies, it is now wasting money of the WHO among other bodies who could spend that money on other promotions, health projects, research etc. The tobacco industry has too much influence over international health policy and interactions.
Uruguay stood up and was not deterred by the bullying tactics used by PMI and other international tobacco industries. But what if the WHO had not been able to step in, what if the country was in a worse financial state, that couldn’t even risk going to court to defend their right to make national laws on public health issues? Is it acceptable for the tobacco industry to walk in and decide what is okay or not okay? Especially when their aim is profit for themselves, with no concern for the country they are negatively impacting?
Togo, is one of the 10 poorest countries in the world and they tried to bring similar anti-tobacco laws to those mentioned above but they do not stand a chance against the brute force of such an over financed industry. A single industry should not be able to dictate to an independent country what they can and can’t do in terms of improving health of their population.
The real issue here is a country does not owe any one business anything. Business companies are independent of government, or at least they should be. Within a democratic setting, the government is elected to make and enforce laws on public matters. They are to act in the best interest of the people who elected them. They do not have to consider the impact of how a new law may impact an international industry, especially one that does not contribute in any positive way to the development of the country.
Yet they can, and do sue governments for introducing new laws to promote and protect the population’s health. They encourage other countries who have no vested interest to also sue these countries. They are pitting country vs. country, with no regard for the fallout that will inevitably ensue.
It is time to put the tobacco industry back into the place it belongs – the history books. There is no room in the future for an industry that promotes only negative outcomes. Many countries are already working towards a tobacco free future with, among others, New Zealand leading the way. There are a lot of people who cannot foresee it happening, but to these people I say “you just wait!” The tobacco industry may feel stronger than ever but it is on its death bed.
And I for one look forward to the day when someone in a history class asks “What are tobacco and cigarettes?”