The Tobacco Industry
5 May 1985
The tobacco industry
It is now 23 years since the Royal College of Physicians of London published their first major report detailing the links between smoking and diseases like lung cancer and emphysema. Since that time there have been some 30,000 scientific papers published adding volumes to what was in 1962 an already towering weight of bad news for the tobacco industry.
Any industry finding that its product is a killer has a number of options: withdrawal, large-scale diversification, product modification or a decision to ignore the evidence. Every option but withdrawal has been explored. The tobacco industry has made a particular art form of ignoring evidence while desperately prodding its scientists to develop so-called ‘safe’ cigarettes and diversifying its vast capital into other industrial concerns - as well as, not instead of tobacco. The industry has a travelling circus of minor, tame and eccentric academics that it parades around the world at public hearings, industry lunches and in its glossy publications. Their job is to present an image that the medical fraternity is divided about smoking and health, that there is a ‘controversy’.
This tactic is cutting less and less ice. A 1979 American public opinion poll commissioned by the industry rubbed their nose in the fact that a majority believed that the industry knows the case against smoking is true, and nine out of ten accept it themselves.
Far and away the highest priority in the industry’s defence strategy is their political lobbying. In Brussels, the industry maintains a small office, the International Tobacco Information Centre. The Centre monitors the activities of smoking control activists and operates an international propaganda campaign at many different levels. Under the grand title of Secretary General, its head told the 1984 World Tobacco Symposium in The Hague how subjects like taxation, the freedom to sell tobacco and attacking the ‘alleged’ social costs of smoking and passive smoking were priorities in their international program to ‘counter fears among ministries in Third World countries - fears which have been raised by uninformed comments’.
The tobacco industry’s political tactics have been depressingly documented in British Panorama journalist Peter Taylor’s recent book, The Smoke Ring: the Politics of Tobacco. Taylor chronicled the inter-meshing interests of industry with government anxious not to reduce cigarette buying because of the import and excise duties raised. When government officials charged with curbing national smoking take their job seriously, they are effectively stabbed in the back. Taylor describes in detail the cases of two highly placed men who had opposed the industry, Sir George Young, a British Junior Minister for Health who was moved sideways after several years of criticising the industry, and Joseph Califano, US Secretary of the Department of Health, Education and Welfare. Califano was sacked by President Jimmy Carter after upsetting the powerful Southern tobacco belt senators.
The tobacco industry is understandably delighted whenever they can coax a highly-placed politician under their wing. In the September 1984 issue of World Tobacco in an article on Australia, their correspondent thrilled that ‘A major supporter of tobacco company sponsorship of sporting organisations and competitions is the Federal Minister for Sport, Mr Brown, who says that although cigarette advertisements might influence smokers to switch brands, he did not believe that they made people take up smoking.’ Brown has consistently shrugged oH’ representations from Australian health groups with evidence to the contrary and seems nonplussed about nurturing the association of a product that kills over 17,000 Australians each year, with his portfolio of sport - a grotesque association of disease with health, Elsewhere, the tobacco industry’s influence can permeate through to the very centre of the ruling circle. The Chairman of British American Tobacco (Kenya), Bethuel Gecaga, is none other than a member (by marriage) of Kenya’s ‘royal family’, the Kenyattas.
It is the advertising of cigarettes that is considered a prime target by the world’s smoking control groups. For it is obvious that advertising seeks - and often succeeds - in promoting smoking as a good, desirable thing, But there is also growing evidence of the indirect power of the tobacco giants through the size of their advertising budgets. He who pays the piper is not excited when the tune is discordant. Several reports have gathered strong evidence that publications which accept tobacco advertising are less likely to publish anti-smoking articles. In one recent study, 12 large circulation US magazines were surveyed over 12 years for the inclusion of articles on smoking and health. Despite having regular articles on health issues, eight did not feature a single article on the hazards of smoking.
Advertising was withdrawn from one issue of London’s Sunday Times as a thinly veiled warning following a critical article on smoking and disease that named the brands smoked by heart transplant patients. When Newsweek ran a story on what it called ‘the uncivil war over smoking’ in its June 6 1983 issue, all tobacco advertisers withdrew from the magazine. This was hardly going to encourage Newsweek to write further material. And when four Australian state parliaments debated the banning of tobacco advertising in 1983, editorial reaction by newspapers was an overwhelming ‘hands off’, often cheerfully acknowledging that the money from cigarette advertising was their guiding principle.
It seems most publications are incapable of assessing the issue in terms unclouded by financial self-interest. Far from being the hallmark of freedom of expression’ - one of the tobacco industry’s more lurid abuses of the English language - tobacco advertising is an effective gag and censor on the free flow of information to the public on health hazards on smoking.
Perhaps most depressing is the case of the Journal of the American Medical Association. On September 7 1982, its editor, George D. Lundberg MD, sent a confidential memorandum to the journal’s editorial staff titled ‘Particularly Sensitive Political Issues’. In the memo Lundberg wrote that two officials of the American Medical Association, including its head Dr James Sammons, had ‘pointed out the existence of some particularly sensitive political questions and urged that we exercise appropriate caution in our publication on these subjects’. The subjects were tobacco and control of tobacco use, nuclear war and abortion: in that order of priority. Lundberg added that ‘the cautions do not involve science since we are, as always, completely free to publish properly referred scientific information with no restraints.
In November 1984, the eminent publication featured an issue concentrating on tobacco which nowhere took a critical stand of either the industry or of government foot-dragging. Instead it looked at safe, inconsequential and technical issues like death certification and nicotine chewing gum.
Doctors have often been to the fore in politicising public health issues such as fluoridation of water. seat belt, crash helmet and fire-proof nightware legislation, food standards and the health consequences of nuclear war. If a medical journal, the official organ of the US medical profession, cannot take an uncompromising political stance on the leading cause of premature death in the developed world as described by the World Health Organization it is a sorry day for public health.
What is the ethical bottom line in the arguments about tobacco control? Recently, when I challenged a tobacco executive’s claim in Marketing Week that tobacco advertising had no effect on sales, I was told in reply that I knew nothing about economics and should read Milton Friedman to get some sense into my head. Chastised, I dipped into Capitalism and Freedom and was interested to read that: ‘Few trends could so thoroughly undermine the very foundations of our free society as the acceptance by corporate officials of a social responsibility other than to make as much money for their shareholders as possible,’
This is the mentality acknowledged within the tobacco industry to be at the heart of their indifference to the massive evidence on the connection between smoking and disease. It explains why the catastrophic deforestation now occurring in the tobacco-growing areas of countries like Kenya, Tanzania, Sudan and Pakistan - as wood is burnt to cure tobacco leaves - is shrugged off. It explains why companies such as British American Tobacco have supplied Kenyan farmers with the pesticide aldrin in the full knowledge that many western countries ban its use because of toxicity to agricultural workers. And it explains why the tobacco industry’s first priority is to court political power so that it can squash any moves which might dramatically reduce its trade.
A paper just published by two London economists working at Guy’s Hospital* confirms what many working on smoking control have suspected for a long time: that countries with tough and comprehensive legislation in matters like advertising bans and pack warnings are bringing down smoking faster than those which have left controls in the hands of the tobacco industry itself. Not surprisingly the ‘voluntary codes’ of marketing and advertising restraint are less effective. Why would any industry agree to restrain sales and profits?
We have shown that governments are reluctant to act to reduce smoking: that newspapers and magazines are pressed to ignore the issue. Even the American medical profession can be influenced. And as the tobacco industry patently won’t control or reduce its own activities, that just leaves consumers. What are we going to do about the promotion of smoking?
* H. Cox & R. Smith, Political approaches to smoking control: a comparative analysis. Applied Economics 1984.
Simon Chapman is authos of the Lung Goodbye tactics for counteracting the tobacco industry in the 1980s (Consumer Interpol, 57 Carrington Road, Marrickville, NSW, Australia $A8.00 post paid).