The international public health community has agreed to pay special attention to the tactics of the tobacco industry to undermine tobacco control measures and promote a unique and inherently lethal product. Presently, there are 180 states that are Parties to the Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (FCTC), the first modern-day global public health treaty created under the auspices of the World Health Organization (WHO). In 2008, all FCTC Parties adopted the Guidelines for the Implementation of Article 5.3 of the FCTC, which recommend, among others, standards on dealing with the tobacco industry and its front groups, and prohibit governments from granting incentives, privileges, or benefits to the tobacco industry and from accepting political, social, financial, educational, community, or other contributions from the tobacco industry or from those working to further its interests.
In 2014, the global health community agreed to a coordinated approach in intensifying tobacco control efforts and protecting governments from the vested and commercial interests of the tobacco industry. FCTC Parties further decided to promote the implementation of Article 5.3 of the FCTC and its guidelines in various international organizations (IOs).
The role of IOs, including non-government organizations (NGOs), needs to be examined in the context of a multi-sectoral approach. The actions of these organizations influence state behavior, help transform the processes of international law, mobilize states, and leverage public opinion. IOs play a critical role in increasing awareness of the tobacco industry’s practice of using front groups to further its interests.
IOs need to recognize the dangers of treating the tobacco industry like any corporate citizen. Moreover, IOs that work on developmental issues must be prepared to support the implementation of the FCTC. Treaty obligations and guidelines offer governments with evidence-based standards of treatment for the tobacco industry based on documented nefarious practices of violating anti-corruption, agriculture, environmental, and labor laws. Treaty guidelines also recommend more stringent transparency standards that governments must require from the tobacco industry. For instance, Parties must adopt measures requiring information and penalizing the tobacco industry for any false and misleading submissions. Further, governments are obligated under treaty law to ban or restrict the tobacco industry’s corporate social responsibility activities, which, as evidenced from internal documents of the tobacco industry, were found to be mere strategies to promote its products, expand markets, increase profits, and influence policies relating to tobacco control.
WHAT MAKES TOBACCO UNIQUE?
Tobacco is unique in that it is the only consumer product that kills half of its consumers when used according to its manufacturers’ instructions. Far more people are killed by tobacco than by weapons1 , natural disasters2, and road accidents combined. Tobacco-related deaths have risen to an alarmingly high rate of 6 million per year (15,000 a day) – a rate that may kill one billion people in the 21st century, if current trends persist3. Tobacco also results in over 600,000 non-smokers dying each year from involuntary exposure to secondhand smoke, 28% (169,000) of which are children4.
The tobacco epidemic is recognized as globalized, especially considering that presently, 180 Parties have ratified the FCTC, which entered into force in 2005. The FCTC is the only treaty in the world to govern a consumer product. It is an evidence-based treaty which has become a tool for international cooperation and multilateral regulation as the tobacco epidemic transcends national borders5. With a progressive 50% reduction in uptake and consumption rates, by the year 2050, 200 million lives are projected to be saved, and hundreds of millions more thereafter6.
WHAT SETS THE TOBACCO INDUSTRY APART?
The tobacco industry is the only industry that treaty law requires to be strictly monitored7. As part of their treaty obligations, FCTC Parties are required to protect their respective tobacco control measures from the commercial and vested interests of the tobacco industry.
The Preamble of the FCTC recognizes that Parties need to be alert to any efforts by the tobacco industry to undermine or subvert tobacco control efforts. They need to be informed of activities of the tobacco industry that have a negative impact on tobacco control efforts8. In 2011, the Political Declaration on the Prevention and Control of Non-communicable Diseases (NCD), issued by the United Nations General Assembly, recognized the fundamental conflict of interest between the tobacco industry and public health, and pledged to give high priority to the full implementation of the FCTC9. In May 2013, the Global Action Plan on Prevention and Control of NCDs 2013-2020, adopted by all WHO Member States (even those that are not Party to the FCTC), reiterated the need to protect tobacco control policies from the vested interests of the tobacco industry10
Tobacco manufacturers have been involved in many controversies ranging from suppressing evidence about tobacco’s health effects to engaging in an extensive illicit trade while supporting crime, terrorism, and armed conflict with their profits. Currently, the European Union (EU) is investigating Japan Tobacco for allegedly violating Syria’s sanctions and supporting the government’s attacks on dissidents via illicit sale of cigarettes11.
Further reports describe many instances where global tobacco companies were charged with or found to be undermining tobacco control measures:
- Tobacco companies in the United States (US) were charged and found guilty of violating Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations laws, with the court explaining how the tobacco companies “sold their lethal product with zeal, with deception, with a single-minded focus on their financial
success, and without regard for the human tragedy or social costs that success exacted.”12
- Tobacco companies were found to be complicit in cigarette smuggling and were required to pay settlement fees in the EU and Canada13.
- Tobacco companies were held liable for their actions/ products in jurisdictions with strong legal systems (MSA in the US, Canadian class suit)14
Despite its record of incorrigible behavior15 the tobacco industry insists that it is just like any other corporate citizen selling a legal product, much like the food industry, and uses every opportunity to undermine the global recognition of its uniqueness. For instance, when graphic health warnings were introduced, tobacco companies would compare these with graphic warnings for sugary drinks and unhealthy food16.
WHAT SECTORS ARE AFFECTED BY THE TOBACCO INDUSTRY’S SPHERE OF INFLUENCE?
A UN Development Programme (UNDP) report enumerated some of the sectors involved in FCTC implementation wherein the tobacco industry has extended its influence: trade, tax, education, justice and law enforcement, environment, and agriculture17
- Anti-Corruption/Transparency: In 2012, British American Tobacco invoked a Transparency International report to publicize18 that an international organization recognized it as one of the most “transparent” in terms of corporate and anti-corruption reporting19. This is a far cry from the many instances where tobacco companies have been accused of corruption and of unduly influencing high officials (e.g., Philippines, Indonesia,EU)20. Furthermore, instead of being transparent, the tobacco companies have been known to resist and undermine regulations, including the requirements to submit information of various forms21. For instance, in its 2014 shareholders meeting, Phillip Morris (PM) voted against a proposal to declare its political contributions22
- Agriculture: Tobacco companies claim to promote the welfare of farmers, yet are involved in contributing to a cycle of debt for tobacco farmers, mainly by keeping the price of tobacco leaves low23
- Environment: A majority of tobacco is woodcured causing serious damage to the environment24. Instead of creating awareness, tobacco companies widely promote and fund unsustainable tree-planting activities25that are severely disproportionate to the amount of damage caused by wood curing26
- Labor: Child labor in the production and farming of tobacco is a well-documented, continuing problem. A study shows that majority of children working in US tobacco farms were found to have green leaf symptoms26. Yet, the tobacco industry uses its international programme on child labor to create an impression that it is addressing child labor issues28.
CAN THE TOBACCO INDUSTRY BE SOCIALLY RESPONSIBLE?
Corporate social responsibility (CSR) is recognized as a key to political influence across policy domains29and is being used as a strategy to access policymakers with the objective to undermine tobacco control policies30. The FCTC addressed this problem in various ways:
- Article 13 of the FCTC obliges Parties to ban tobacco sponsorship, including CSR as part of a comprehensive advertising ban. Article 13 guidelines further describe so-called tobacco CSR as a form of advertising:
- “Tobacco companies may also seek to engage in ‘socially responsible’ business practices (such as good employee–employer relations or environmental stewardship), which do not involve contributions to other parties. Promotion to the public of such otherwise commendable activities should be prohibited, as their aim, effect or likely effect is to promote a tobacco product or tobacco use either directly or indirectly.”31
- “Public dissemination of such information should be prohibited, except for the purposes of required corporate reporting (such as annual reports) or necessary business administration (e.g., for recruitment purposes and communications with suppliers).”32
WHAT LEVEL OF TRANSPARENCY DO WE NEED FROM THE TOBACCO INDUSTRY?
Transparency standards required from the tobacco industry include:
a. Requiring tobacco companies to submit information to governments on tobacco production, manufacture, market share, marketing expenditures, revenues, and other activities, including lobbying, philanthropy, political contributions, and all other activities not (yet) prohibited under tobacco advertising, promotion, and sponsorship provisions of the FCTC.xxxiii
b.Ensuring the disclosure and registration of all the tobacco industry’s entities, affiliated organizations, and individuals acting on its behalf, including lobbyists.xxxiv
c. Making information acquired from the tobacco industry publicly available.xxxv The tobacco industry should not be expected to voluntarily submit information. Instead, governments are urged to adopt measures that require information and penalize the tobacco industry for false and misleading submissions.xxxvi
WHAT IS THE ROLE OF INTERNATIONAL NON-GOVERNMENT ORGANIZATIONS IN ALL OF THESE?
With a multi-sectoral approach to tobacco control, collaboration with various IOs is necessary, including those involved in trade, tax, education, justice and law enforcement, labor, environment, and agriculture.
Implicitly, international NGOs (INGOs) working closely with IOs should be conscious of their roles in promoting treaty implementation and observing international law. Scholars recognize that both IGOs and INGOs can be “norm entrepreneurs” that socialize and teach new norms, which may in turn influence state behavior.xxxvii Hence, all IOs seeking to assist governments to comply with international law should not perpetrate actions that go against the same,xxxviii such as promoting tobacco industry interests.
Organizations, international or otherwise, that promote tobacco industry interests take the risk of being perceived as being a front group for the industry. This perception could create problems in collaborating with governments because Article 5.3 Guidelines define the tobacco industry as including front groups or those that represent its interests. The said guidelines recommend governments to avoid interacting with such entities or individuals that represent tobacco industry interests, unless strictly necessary for its regulation.
The Guidelines for the Implementation of Article 13 state: “[p]arties should, in addition, raise awareness about the tobacco industry’s practice of using individuals, front groups and affiliated organisations to act, openly or covertly, on their behalf or to take action to further the interests of the tobacco industry.”xxxix
THE RED CROSS CASE STUDY
Even the Red Cross recognizes the contradiction between collaborating with the tobacco industry and upholding the Fundamental Principles of Humanity and Interdependence.
On 31 May 2013 (World No Tobacco Day), the Governing Board of the International Federation of the Red Cross/Red Crescent adopted a resolution urging National Societies to refrain from accepting funds from the tobacco industry.
In June 2015, an Internal Guidance Brief, which provides for the non-engagement of the Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies with tobacco companies, was circulated to National Societies and was made available to Red Cross and Red Crescent staff and volunteers.
The Red Cross/Red Crescent Societies are important vectors of influence on governments and the civil society alike, particularly because of their close ties with their respective national governments and with their counterpart societies around the world. To open up this vast influence and network to an industry that is the leading cause of premature deaths around the world is to compromise the movement’s fundamental principles and to risk the credibility on which its effectiveness rests.