A report published on the 19 July 2017 by the World Health Organisation (WHO) on the global tobacco epidemic states that due to tobacco control policies, 63% of the world’s population or 4.7 billion people are covered by at least one comprehensive tobacco measure. This has quadrupled since 2007, when only 1 billion people or 15% of the population were covered.

These comprehensive measures include monitoring tobacco use and prevention policies, protecting individuals from tobacco smoke, offering to help people quit smoking, warning the public about the dangers of smoking, enforcing bans on the advertisement, promotion and sponsorship of tobacco and raising taxes on cigarettes.

Yet, despite this progress, the tobacco industry continues to attempt to subvert government efforts. The clearest example of this is in tobacco giant Philip Morris’s efforts in India.

Campaign in India shows similarities to their efforts in America in the 1990’s

Philip Morris, the world’s largest publicly traded tobacco company and manufacturer of Marlboro cigarettes has been violating a number of Indian laws in an attempt to capitalise on the country’s predominantly youthful population. With 100 million smokers, the market is ripe with opportunity for significant growth.

Its strategy involves plastering the inside walls of roadside tobacco kiosks with colourful adverts, giving away free cigarettes at clubs and bars in exchange for contact details and preferences and even sabotaging the WHO’s global tobacco treaty conference in the Indian capital of New Delhi.

Delhi’s chief tobacco control officer S. K. Arora has been personally visiting tobacco kiosks for three years – to tear down cigarette advertisements and issue fines to the shop owners, only to find the posters back up within a few days. Morris gives each kiosk owner Rs. 2,000 worth of free cigarettes and a monthly fee for posters, which are put up by Morris representatives and significantly increase sales.

Although Arora wrote to the firm in April – giving them till the end of the month to remove their advertisements – the director for corporate affairs, R. Venkatesh says they are not doing anything wrong, but are actually “compliant with Indian law” and “fully cooperated with the enforcement authorities” on the matter. Arora has now threatened legal actions and is awaiting guidance from the federal government.

Government accordance is a slippery slope

Although India was one of the first countries to ratify the WHO’s Framework Convention on Tobacco Control Treaty (FCTC) – a pact to implement policies such as anti-smoking provisions, tobacco taxes, warning labels on cigarette packs and advertising bans – a leak of secret Morris documents has revealed that it planned to prevent Prime Minister Narendra Modi from taking “extreme anti-tobacco measures”.

In accordance with this, Philip Morris representatives were conspicuously absent from the gaggle of other tobacco firm representatives vying to gain access to the conference in November last year.

Undercover reporters later discovered that they were in a hotel room close to the conference and were aiming to block or weaken treaty provisions by holding clandestine meetings with country delegates. The company has conducted such meetings with delegates during almost every convention.

The implications for public health

This growing influence over the biannual FCTC means that since the first conference in 2006, industry players have lobbied for health delegates to be replaced by those from trade backgrounds such as finance and taxation.

Whilst it is necessary to modulate factors like taxes to prevent a burgeoning illicit trade, there were more than six health delegates for every finance-related delegate in 2006 – as compared to last year, whereby there were only three health delegates for every finance delegate. If this happens, the focus of these conferences becomes trade over public health. In fact, the meeting in Delhi was the worst so far, in terms of passing new anti-smoking provisions.

Dr Douglas Bettcher, Director of the WHO’s Department for the Prevention of Noncommunicable Diseases says, “tobacco industry interference in government policy-making represents a deadly barrier to advancing health and development in many countries. But by monitoring and blocking such activities, we can save lives and sow the seeds for a sustainable future for all.”

Indeed the measures recommended by the WHO can even be implemented by countries with low resources and will improve health, lower healthcare costs, increase productivity and therefore improve economy and protect the county’s future by protecting its youth.

Implementation of these measures has resulted in more than 53 million people in 88 countries stopping smoking between 2007 and 2014 and 22 million smoking-related deaths will be averted because of the treaty. MIMS

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