Leaked documents reveal that tobacco companies are attempting to scupper an international agreement – designed to prevent tens of millions of deaths from tobacco use – by proposing a voluntary marketing agreement that leaves profits intact but allows them to claim they are socially responsible.
The World Health Organization’s proposed Framework Convention on Tobacco Control – with negotiations scheduled to recommence in March – aims to set international standards on issues such as tobacco advertising, warnings on cigarette packs and tobacco smuggling.
The tobacco industry, led by British American Tobacco (BAT), is resisting the Convention. ‘BAT sees the Framework Convention as a threat to its growing markets in developing countries. It is determined to derail it, delay it and sabotage it in any possible way it can,’ says Clive Bates from the British-based Action on Smoking and Health (ASH).
The industry’s first move was by BAT, Philip Morris and Japan Tobacco who adopted an international voluntary code for marketing. According to BAT, these new ‘globally consistent international marketing standards’ represent a ‘raising of the bar and establish a benchmark for the industry worldwide’.
However, a leaked memo from a Wall Street tobacco analyst for Credit Suisse Group states that in reality this initiative is simply a proactive way ‘to improve the tobacco industry’s image’. The memo states that ‘by proactively setting new international tobacco marketing standards, the multinationals could be trying to counter a number of proposals that WHO has been working on to curb the amount of cigarettes that are consumed on an international level’.
BAT, which its critics claim contributes to the deaths of 750,000 people a year and which is also under investigation by Britain’s Department of Trade and Industry for facilitating cigarette smuggling, has taken the lead in trying to redefine itself as ‘responsible’. BAT has sought to entice its critics to participate in secretive ‘stakeholder’ discussions as part of the input into the preparation of its first social-responsibility report, scheduled for release in April 2002.
‘We have 15 markets around the world preparing reports for publication and every market is going through the process of engaging with stakeholders,’ says Brendan Brady, the Corporate and Regulatory Affairs Director for BAT Australasia. ‘It is up to us to demonstrate that we are genuine in our attempt to listen to our stakeholders and respond to them in a manner that is acceptable,’ he says.
But health groups from across the globe have largely boycotted the stakeholder dialogue process. ‘It’s just a public-relations mirage, completely devoid of substance, aimed only at buffing up their tarnished and tawdry image,’ argues Clive Bates.
In Britain, BAT contracted Durham Ethics, a business consultancy involving former Bishop of Durham David Jenkins, to convene meetings in London – most recently in January – to discuss ‘Tobacco and Responsibility’. Leaked documents of this meeting reveal that it was held under ‘Chatham House rules’ requiring participants not to disclose what was discussed.
According to the leaked minutes, David Jenkins called BAT’s social-reporting project a ‘risky but essentially hopeful’ exercise. The minutes also reveal that Mervyn Pedelty, Chair of the new ethical advisory committee of the FTSE and Chief Executive of the Co-operative Bank, held out the possibility that BAT might one day be considered as a company ethical investors could support. ‘We aspire towards a situation where we can more readily distinguish between the “best performers” and the “rest” in any industry – including tobacco.’
Others disagreed. World-famous Oxford University epidemiologist Richard Peto wrote that for BAT to act ‘ethically’ it should not only acknowledge that smoking killed people, but also that about half of all smokers were killed by tobacco.
In a damning submission, Lord Hunt, Britain’s Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State at the Department of Health, proposed that ‘the most appropriate social criterion on which to judge BAT’s performance would be its success in moving, in partnership with its employees and suppliers, away from tobacco towards less harmful forms of economic activity’.
BAT’s enthusiasm for stakeholder comments, however, is confined to countries where government regulations have cut sales and stunted profits. Chris Richardson from the Seventh Day Adventist Church is listed on WHO tobacco-control contact lists for Papua New Guinea but didn’t hear from BAT – even though it has manufacturing operations there. Not that an invitation would have troubled Richardson for too long: ‘The “stakeholder” exercise is a sham … designed to promote the concept that drug sellers have a valid role in society.’
One internal 1990 BAT document recorded BAT’s satisfaction with increasing tobacco use in developing countries. ‘We should not be depressed simply because the total free-world markets appear to be declining. Within the total market, there are areas of strong growth, particularly in Asia and Africa,’ it said.
Bob Burton is a freelance journalist based in Canberra,
The pain of childbirth
In Nepal, a country where 1 in 20 women die from unsafe abortion, the Family Planning Association of Nepal (FPAN) has had to relinquish a relationship with USAID which had lasted 26 years. ‘If I were to accept the restricted US funds,’ said FPAN director-general, Dr Nirmal K Bista, ‘I would be prevented from speaking in my own country to my own government about a healthcare crisis I know firsthand.’
The current target of the International Safe Motherhood Initiative is a 75-per-cent reduction in deaths from 1990 levels by 2015. The World Bank has estimated that the financial cost of basic maternal and newborn health services is, on average, three dollars per person per year in developing countries.
Mozambique ended 16 years of bloody civil war in 1992. Yet the country is still awash with millions of weapons left over from that conflict. Creating a culture of peace out of such a legacy is no easy task, but the Christian Council of Mozambique has collected and destroyed more than 200,000 of these guns, grenades and rocket launchers. In exchange they give out farm tools and other equipment. An association of artists, Nucleo de Arte, from Maputo, have found a new use for these discarded weapons of war. What were once stockpiles of rusting weapons emerge as strange, beautiful new shapes of birds, animals, chairs, even coffee tables under the transforming hands of these artists.
Argentina’s four-year long slump has become a full-blown economic crisis. In late December the middle classes, angered at the Government’s decision to limit bank withdrawals to just $250 a week – a measure designed to prevent a run on the banks – joined the unemployed and impoverished sectors in mass rallies in several major cities. In the capital, Buenos Aires, the federal police used tear gas and rubber bullets against marchers congregating in the central square, the Plaza de Mayo. Twenty-seven civilians died in the clashes and hundreds were injured by heavy-handed official reaction to what were mainly peaceful, spontaneous solidarity marches.
Meanwhile, Argentina was set to default on its $132 billion foreign debt and its currency, the peso, pegged to the dollar since 1991, is unlikely to stand firm as the meltdown continues. IMF-imposed austerity demands have led to at least 18 per cent unemployment. Economic hardship increases daily, almost half the population living below the official poverty line; the health service is on the verge of collapse and retail and banking are in tatters as powerbrokers wait to see if the Government will allow a slide into hyperinflation.
Between President de la Rua’s resignation on 20 December and 1 January, 2002, chaos in the state apparatus was even worse than that in the streets – five heads of state passed through congress as internecine quarrels in the Justicialist Party took priority over restoring calm and order in the country. The marches continued as disaffection with the political classes, once the preserve of left-wing militants and slum dwellers, became universal.
While a series of administrations have proved inept at dealing with social issues, several non-governmental agencies have worked throughout the recession to fill the void left by a dysfunctional social-services ministry. These include non-cash trading, and microcredit projects.
Arguing that the neoliberal model has led to ‘7 million people with employment problems, 14 million poor and the collapse of tens of thousands of small- and medium-sized businesses’, the National Front Against Poverty (FNCP) has been proposing a payment of 380 pesos ($380) to unemployed heads of families and 60 pesos per child. In mid-December, the FNCP, in association with ATTAC-Argentina, called for a ‘popular consultation’ – an open meeting in which all sectors can appeal to the Government for emergency funds to combat poverty. The FNCP states that this direct appeal is enshrined (if unused) within the constitution and that a similar plebiscite in Uruguay helped limit privatizations.
Microcredit is also making an appearance in the country’s slum areas. Marta Bekerman, an economics lecturer at the University of Buenos Aires, leads the Avanzar team which implements microcredit schemes in shanty towns on the outskirts of the capital city. Loans of between $200 and $300 are made available through the Fundación de la Banco Ciudad, used to help create a variety of small businesses, from takeaway food stores to hairdressers. Bekerman, who helped start the project in June 2000, hopes ‘to improve the quality of the businesses being created via training’. The Government, she says, ‘has given no help at all’.
Barter is also booming – provoked by, among other things, the Buenos Aires provincial government’s payment of its employees in patacones (IOUs) instead of money. At some 30 nodos (trading nodes) around the capital, thousands of people meet to exchange food, household appliances, furniture and services like cleaning and hairstyling. It is estimated that $40 million worth of transactions take place at these barter markets. Sylvia, a barterer at Nodo 11 in the centre of Buenos Aires says its not just the poor who use the barter markets: ‘We are seeing more items from once-wealthy households – there have even been cases of families sending their maids to trade so they don’t lose face socially.’