6 million deaths a year – where’s the global campaign on Big Tobacco?

April 3, 2013

     By Duncan Green     

Since I wrote recently on the major sources of death in the developing world, I keep spotting things about tobacco that are crying out for action. Takesmokers this from last week’s Economist:

‘This month Chile became the 14th Latin American country to ban smoking in enclosed public spaces.

Chile’s conversion is significant, since it is something of a smokers’ corner. The World Health Organisation says over 40% of Chileans smoke, compared with 27% of Argentines and 17% of people in Brazil, where curbs on smoking began in the late 1990s. Chile’s health minister, Jaime Mañalich, says that treating tobacco victims takes a quarter of the $10 billion public health-care budget.

Chile’s smokers are getting younger. According to the Tobacco Atlas, a study of the industry, nearly 40% of girls aged 13-15 in Santiago, Chile’s capital, smoke cigarettes. That is up from just 20% in 2003, and is the highest rate in the world. Growing prosperity is partly to blame. Mr Mañalich also points to a cultural change: “Chile has always been a very macho country but that is changing. For women, smoking in public is somehow a sign they are liberated.”

Latin America’s new curbs on smoking face resistance from the industry. Philip Morris International, an American tobacco company, has filed a claim against Uruguay at the International Centre for Settlement of Investment Disputes, an arm of the World Bank, claiming that the country’s anti-smoking measures violate a bilateral investment treaty. Brazil, the world’s third-biggest producer of tobacco leaf, faces pressure from its planters to protect their jobs.

14738996-smoking-flag-of-chileThe anti-smoking lobby wants to see pricing and taxing of cigarettes be co-ordinated across Latin America, to discourage contraband. With income varying widely among countries, that would be hard. But governments could discourage smoking with other steps, such as curbs on advertising, bigger health warnings and subsidising nicotine-replacement therapy.

“Only Satan can grant man the faculty of expelling smoke through the mouth,” declared the Spanish Inquisition in imprisoning Rodrigo de Jerez, one of Columbus’s sailors, and the first person to bring tobacco to Europe. Latin American governments now seem to agree.’

Did you do a double take on para 4? If not, why not? A major tobacco company, Philip Morris, is trying to block the Uruguayan Government’s attempts to limit the devastation. According to a briefing by IISD, the company brought the case  in 2010  and ‘is challenging three provisions of Uruguay’s tobacco regulations: (1) a “single presentation” requirement that prohibits marketing more than one tobacco product under each brand, (2) a requirement that tobacco packages include “pictograms” with graphic images of the health consequences of smoking (such as cancerous lungs), and (3) a mandate that health warnings cover 80% of the front and back of cigarette packages.’ Philip Morris’ own version of events confirms this.

The ICSID says that the suit is ongoing, with a tribunal meeting in Paris last February.

Now tobacco is the world’s number one killer, claiming 6m lives a year (over 3 times the number of deaths caused by HIV/AIDS). When Big PharmaLicensed to Kill tried to restrict access to HIV/AIDS medicines, campaigners jumped all over them, with considerable success (as this week’s landmark ruling against Novartis in India shows). The standard Oxfam recipe for a good campaign is that you need a problem, a solution, and a villain. Big Tobacco would seem to tick every box, don’t you think?

April 3, 2013
Duncan Green