Friday, September 13, 2013

The muscle and money of Big Tobacco

Few issues are more black-and-white than smoking. Speak to any conscientious doctor and he or she will advise you either to quit the fags or never take them up.

Despite that clarity, the tobacco industry tries to seduce us with a variety of shades. In his magnificent book Golden Holocaust, Robert Proctor refers to a marketing paper drawn up by cigarette-makers Brown & Williamson in 1978. "Light colours connect with light tasting," it read. "Combinations of yellow, orange and red now equate to smoking enjoyment. Certain blues are contradictory to smoking enjoyment and can denote strength and coldness. Other blues are prestigious, though in a passive sense."

As the idea of selling cigarettes in plain packaging would undermine decades of strategising, it's little wonder that Big Tobacco has been striving to scupper any moves in that direction. Australia's government was commendably stubborn enough last year to insist that all cigarette boxes be a sickly green and covered with lurid health warnings. The EU's main institutions, by contrast, have proven more malleable.

Data entered into a register of "interest representatives" run by the European Commission indicates that tobacco firms spared no expense in seeking to torpedo a plain packaging proposal during 2012.

British American Tobacco (BAT) says it shelled out up to €1 million on lobbying in Brussels last year -- more than twice what it declared for 2011. Philip Morris spent up to €1.25 million for the same purpose in 2012 and Japan Tobacco International spent up to €600,000. Imperial Tobacco, meanwhile, spent up to €250,000 between October 2011 and September 2012.

Umbrella groups bringing together a number of firms also mobilised to save the shades. The Confederation of European Community Cigarette Manufacturers had a lobbying war-chest of around €700,000 last year. The European Smoking Tobacco Association hasn't provided figures for 2012 but claims to have spent about €400,000 the previous year.

All this muscle and money had an effect. Following a controversy involving the dismissal of its health chief John Dalli, the European Commission finally got round to proposing a revised "tobacco products" law in December 2012. Rather than opting for an Australian-style approach to plain packaging across the entire surface of cigarette boxes, the Commission recommended that 30% of each packet could be reserved for branding.

Not content with that concession, the cigarette industry is now trying to weaken the draft law further. MEPs were supposed to decide whether to approve the law this week. By postponing the vote until October, they have given Big Tobacco more time to apply pressure.

No room for nuance

It is important to underline that officials and politicians who bow to this pressure are behaving illegally. The World Health Organisation's convention on tobacco control stresses that contact between public authorities and the tobacco industry should be kept to a strict minimum. Yet documents that I have obtained show there have been numerous contacts involving both EU officials and tobacco lobbyists in recent years. Some officials have even facilitated work aimed at improving the image of cigarette makers -- by, for example, taking part in a BAT conferences which presented that company as "socially responsible".

The lobbying budgets of tobacco firms gives an incomplete picture of their clout. It does not tell us how organisations with a veneer of respectability are essentially fronts for Big Tobacco. The Kangaroo Group is an innocuous-sounding club ostensibly dedicated to "a safe and prosperous Europe". Far from being a mere talking shop, it provides a forum where corporate representatives can cajole MEPs and high-ranking officials. BAT, Philip Morris, Imperial Tobacco and Japan Tobacco are among its members.

The International Chamber of Commerce (ICC) - based in Paris - is more powerful again. The ICC's Jeffrey Hardy has been busy lately masquerading as a civil liberties campaigner. In a position paper written in May, he contended that any limitation on the "distinguishing features" of different cigarette brands would amount to a violation of free expression. Philip Morris and BAT both belong to a "business action" alliance that Hardy runs.

Whenever it harps on about the "rights" of firms and individual smokers, the tobacco industry neglects to mention that health has been recognised as a fundamental human right by the United Nations since the 1940s.

The tobacco industry has a long history of trying to entice young people to smoke and of suppressing evidence about the dangers of its products. Those activities breach the right to health.

There should be no room for nuance when tobacco is discussed. Six million lives are lost to smoking every year. The companies that cause this suffering deserve to be treated as pariahs. So why is the EU accommodating them?

•First published by EUobserver, 13 September 2013.

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