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New Internationalist

Battling the BATmen

Issue 369

The global tobacco industry has fought tooth-and-nail a new international agreement to curb the spread of smoking – to no avail. Bob Burton documents the companies' bullying campaign and the eventual success of little guys who took them on.

IT wasn't often that Martin Broughton, Chair of the Londonbased British American Tobacco (BAT) corporation, received good news. But he was thrilled when he was informed that Mike Moore, recently appointed Director General of the World Trade Organization (WTO), would join him at the Rugby World Cup final in Cardiff on 9 November 1999.

Broughton wrote to Moore, a former Prime Minister of New Zealand/Aotearoa, expressing delight that he had accepted the invitation ‘for what we hope will be an “All Blacks vs England” rugby final'. Broughton's hospitality, however, had little to do with rugby.

In May that year, the World Health Assembly – with representatives from 191 countries – had unanimously voted to support the negotiation of a World Health Organization (WHO) convention to curtail tobacco's deadly toll. The WHO was predicting a doubling of tobacco-related deaths by 2025, with most of those fatalities in the Majority World.

When former Norwegian Prime Minister Gro Harlem Brundtland took over as Director General of WHO in July 1999, she was determined that the Framework Convention on Tobacco Control be completed by May 2003 as part of the WHO's Tobacco Free Initiative (TFI).

Early indications were that the Convention would back policies the tobacco industry hated most – bans on advertising and promotion, support for tax increases and protecting people from secondhand smoke. ‘These are the three tried and tested things that have actually resulted in prevalence rates of smoking coming down in the countries that have adopted them,' according to Mary Assunta, Chair of the Framework Convention Alliance, a coalition of non-governmental organizations supporting tobacco control.

Calling all allies

The global tobacco industry – dominated by giant companies like BAT, the US-headquartered Philip Morris (Altria) and Japan Tobacco (JTI) – was facing its biggest-ever crisis. Its preferred focus – on voluntary measures, youth smoking initiatives that had little effect and ‘ safer' cigarettes – looked likely to get short shrift.

An internal 1999 BAT memo sketched how politically isolated the tobacco industry had become and the potentially critical role of the WTO as one of its few remaining allies. The WHO, Gro Harlem Brundtland, the World Bank and health ministers were all assessed by BAT as ‘hostile' with only finance ministers and tobacco farmers, the FAO (Food and Agricultural Organization) and the WTO listed as ‘allies'.

The reason for hosting Moore at the rugby match, an internal BAT memo stated, was to ‘create a platform for dialogue on the WHO Tobacco Free Initiative's impact on WTO principles'.

A smoker and former NZ ally, Moore may prove key in helping to resist calls for the WHO's TFI proposals to be built into the WTO system,' the memo to Broughton stated. Another memo announced that company executives would soon be advised of legal arguments to use on ‘the compatibility of the WHO Framework Convention with the WTO'.

‘Every time I proposed that health should prevail over trade they would come up and oppose me...’

Like so many of the tobacco industry's recent strategies, the best-laid plans soon fizzled. Around the time of the Rugby World Cup final, Brundtland extracted an agreement from Moore that the WTO would not disrupt the Tobacco Convention.

Despite the tobacco lobby's attempts to frustrate the Convention, the negotiations proceeded – though not always to the liking of those supporting it. Ross Hammond, an NGO activist with the Framework Convention Alliance, was initially dismayed at the timid first draft. ‘When we saw the first draft there was a very robust discussion about whether we should just walk out of the process because it was completely going down the toilet,' he said.

BAT, meanwhile, was attempting to rally tobacco growers to its cause, especially in the global South. BAT described the International Tobacco Growers Association as ‘an ally of ours in this campaign' who would ‘whip up some opposition to the Framework Convention on Tobacco Control, particularly in looking for a delay in implementation'. But the ‘opposition' proved illusory: a few scattered newspaper stories from a series of March 2000 meetings in South Africa, Zimbabwe, Malawi, Kenya and India.

In fact it was the global South that defended the Tobacco Control Convention against the blunt lobbying of Japan, Germany, the US and the compromising tendencies of the European Union. Anti-tobacco activists had feared that Brazil and India would oppose the Convention too, but were pleasantly surprised.

They took a strong leadership position, pushing for a strong Convention. I think that really changed the dynamics in a way that we didn't anticipate and I don't think the tobacco industry could have anticipated it either,' said Hammond.

Mary Assunta attributes the difference to the magnitude of the tobacco epidemic. ‘Eighty per cent of smokers today are in developing countries,' she says. ‘Government after government was realizing that tobacco was an epidemic in their country and that they were ill equipped to address it. They wanted some international standards across the board.'

At a meeting in Geneva on 1 December 1999 BAT, Philip Morris and JTI decided to take another tack. They decided to make some concessions in the hope of deflating support for binding commitments in the Convention. They agreed on a ‘common code of marketing practice'.

In September 2001, JTI, the Thailand Tobacco Monopoly, BAT, Philip Morris, Papastratos of Greece, Grupo de Fomento of Spain and Compania Industrial de Tabacos of Bolivia announced an international voluntary code for marketing. According to BAT, these new ‘globally consistent international marketing standards' represent a ‘raising of the bar… a benchmark for the industry worldwide'.

A leaked memo from a Wall Street tobacco analyst for Credit Suisse Group soon punctured the hype. ‘ In many countries the existing laws or industry codes are already more restrictive than the provisions of the international marketing standards,' the analyst noted.

Steely determination

The President of the Thailand Health Promotion Institute, Dr Hatai Chitanondh, was astonished at the reaction every time he, South Africa or the tiny Pacific nation of Palau proposed that the Convention should ensure there was no role for appeals to the WTO against countries implementing its measures.

Every time I proposed that health should prevail over trade they would come up and oppose me with very strong words… In the last one or two sessions, at the drafting stage, we even had to fight not only the US, Japan and Germany but also our friends like Australia and New Zealand… They are not 100 per cent health… They didn't want us to put health before trade even though we are World Health Organization,' he said.

Despite setbacks, the lobbying muscle of the US, Japan and Germany was unable to frustrate the determination of Pacific, Caribbean, African and Asian delegations. The final Convention, adopted by the World Health Assembly in May 2003, backed measures to end promotion and advertising; and to curb exposure to second-hand smoke. It also recognized the importance of tax increases in cutting consumption.

To date 119 countries have signed the Convention. But 40 countries are needed to ratify the treaty to bring it into effect; and so far only 17 have taken that step. NGOs are gearing up to urge other countries to ratify sooner rather than later.

After ratification, the impact of the Convention will depend on whether national governments actually pass laws with teeth and make an effort to enforce them. ‘If you implemented the spirit of it, you could make a serious dent on tobacco consumption. You could also pass a law that makes it look like you are doing something when you are not: that is where the real battle is now,' says Hammond.

While Mike Moore has vacated the Director General's chair at the WTO, tobacco control activists fear the organization could still play an undermining role. ‘The WTO is a huge overbearing structure that is very powerful and I think it will be the biggest threat to tobacco control,' worries Assunta.

Nevertheless, the Convention stands as a powerful example of what a global network of small community groups, working hand in hand with committed Southern governments, can do to bring real change – despite opposition from an industry with deep pockets supported enthusiastically by captive governments.

Bob Burton is a Canberra-based freelance journalist. He edits Disinfopedia ( for the US-based Center for Media and Democracy and writes for Inter-Press Service.

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This article was originally published in issue 369

New Internationalist Magazine issue 369
Issue 369

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  • Smoke gets in your eyes

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New Internationalist Magazine Issue 436

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