Monday, April 9, 2012

How ACTA stinks of Big Tobacco

Should an industry that causes five million deaths per year be given any say in drafting public policy?

From the outset, Big Tobacco has been one of the driving forces behind the Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement (ACTA). To my astonishment, this crucial nugget of information has been generally overlooked in the debate on this controversial accord.

Shortly after he became chief executive of British American Tobacco (BAT) in 2004, Paul Adams attended a conference on counterfeiting hosted by the World Customs Organisation in Brussels. In his speech, Adams argued that counterfeiting affects cigarettes more than most other products. Counterfeiting “erodes brand values and product integrity,” he said.

Adams then made a risible inference that BAT is an ethical company, whereas counterfeiters lack scruples. “Even in my own industry where our product has its own well known health risks, counterfeit versions made with all manner of untested and sometimes downright illegal additives, and without our rigorous quality control, clearly expose consumers to added dangers,” he said.

Intimately involved

BAT is part of the International Chamber of Commerce (ICC), which was intimately involved in the ACTA negotiation process. In 2008, the ICC’s Jeffrey Hardy sent a memo to the EU, United States and other governments drafting the agreement. ACTA was necessary, he wrote, because “intellectual property theft is no less a crime than physical property theft.”

Hardy has been kept busy lately challenging moves by Australia – another ACTA signatory – to require all cigarettes be sold in plain packaging. It is instructive that a statement issued by Hardy in April last year is almost identical to the case put forward by Paul Adams seven years earlier. “Plain packaging makes it easier for packaging to be copied by counterfeiters, exposing consumers to products with unknown and potentially dangerous ingredients, and it makes it more difficult for consumers to identify the manufacturer responsible for responding to complaints or problems,” Hardy said.

From his Paris office, Hardy has been striving to prevent the introduction of similar measures in Europe. He has, for example, urged John Dalli, the EU’s health commissioner, not to propose plain packaging in a planned revision of the Union’s tobacco legislation (Dalli has pledged to publish new anti-smoking recommendations by the end of this year).

So what’s going on here? From the available evidence, it appears that Big Tobacco is undertaking a multi-pronged offensive to preserve its ill-gotten gains. One of the most harmful industries in human history is not only pretending to be concerned about public health; it is posing as a defender of intellectual property rules that are nominally designed to stimulate creativity and innovation.

Make smoking unsexy

The introduction of plain packaging would be a sensible way to try and make smoking less attractive for the young. Certain brands have a cachet about them: puffing away on Gitanes helps cultivate an air of Gallic insouciance; Marlboro has long been associated with the freedom of the Wild West. But if all packets of fags looked the same and logos were banned, tobacco manufacturers would be deprived of what marketing strategists call “unique selling points”.

Whether contraband or legal, tobacco remains a toxic substance. In his new book Golden Holocaust, Robert Proctor advocates that the manufacture and sale of cigarettes should be outlawed; I’m inclined to agree. Still, if tobacco must be sold, it’s better that cigarettes are regulated and subject to high taxation, than peddled by criminal gangs (in my view, though, the “legitimate” tobacco industry is also criminal; there is no other word that accurately describes its attempts to suppress information about how smoking causes cancer).

But the fact remains that police and customs officers already have ample powers – if not resources - to crack down on cigarette smuggling. There is no compelling reason to introduce a new agreement like ACTA to tackle this scourge. And the way that the tobacco industry has been seeking to thwart plain packaging initiatives must raise suspicions about its agenda and its attempted rebranding of itself as socially responsible.

The World Health Organisation’s (WHO) convention on tobacco control obliges public authorities to ignore the economic interests of cigarette makers when setting policies. Members of the European Parliament must, therefore, ask tough questions about the role that Big Tobacco has played in ACTA. If – as seems to be the case – the cigarette industry is using misleading arguments to defend its interests, then MEPs must rip up the agreement.

Toxic alliance

There are many other reasons, of course, why ACTA should be rejected. It has been negotiated in secret; it could have far-reaching implications for the free circulation of ideas by forbidding many forms of file-sharing on the internet; and it could enable large pharmaceutical companies to demand that the transportation of generic medicines to the world’s poor be restricted or even ceased.

Concerned citizens have a duty to query the motives of ACTA’s supporters. Johnson & Johnson has been obstructing the WHO’s efforts to bring three new drugs, for which it holds patents, to people with AIDS. The firm’s involvement in a pro-ACTA coalition should not be viewed separately from its despicable stance on that issue.

More than nine million people with HIV in Africa, Asia and Latin America lack access to the medicines they need. By 2030, eight million will die from tobacco use throughout the world, if present trends continue.

Hollywood, Big Pharma and Big Tobacco have joined forces to sell ACTA. Why should anyone buy anything from that toxic alliance?

●First published by New Europe, 8-14 April 2012.

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