Thursday, 22 July 2010

The tobacco industry use their vast profits to develop tactics that aim to challenge policies to reduce smoking.

I’ve been thinking about the tobacco industry recently. Not that unusual, but more specifically, I have been angered at how they use their vast profits to develop tactics that aim to challenge and derail policies and legislation to reduce smoking.

Imperial Tobacco – the fourth largest tobacco company in the world – is currently taking legal action against the Scottish Government’s Tobacco and Primary Medical Services (Scotland) Act, challenging the legislative competence of the Holyrood parliament. This Act, which aims to reduce youth smoking by reducing the attractiveness and availability of tobacco, has a number of measures that are due to come in over the next few years. These include registering tobacco retailers, bringing in tougher penalties for those who sell tobacco to under 18s, introducing new offences of buying tobacco underage or for under 18s. It will also close down the retail display of tobacco and ban the sale of cigarettes through vending machines. It is these last two measures which Imperial Tobacco is challenging. The court proceedings have ended and we await the written decision of the judge, Lord Bracadale.

The tobacco industry claims legal action is a last resort, but the facts show otherwise. Philip Morris is seeking to overturn the recently introduced bans on retail tobacco displays in both Norway and Ireland. In England, British American Tobacco, Japan Tobacco, and Imperial Tobacco, are seeking a judicial review against the display ban due to come into force in 2011. In addition, Imperial Tobacco’s subsidiary cigarette vending machine company Sinclair Collins is seeking a judicial review of the English ban on tobacco vending machines also due to be introduced next year.

In Canada where an Act of Parliament mandated larger graphic warning labels on cigarette packets, Imperial Tobacco, Rothmans, Benson & Hedges, and JTI-Macdonald all took to the courts claiming the legislation was an infringement of their rights. In Australia, as soon as the federal government announced they were bringing in legislation to introduce standardised packaging with no branding, colours, or logos, Imperial Tobacco and British American Tobacco both said they would take legal action against such a move. When a tobacco control strategy for England stated it would consider the evidence surrounding plain packaging, Imperial Tobacco immediately responded by threatening a legal challenge.

Going to court is part of big tobacco’s continuing strategy of seeking to dilute, delay or derail legislation to reduce tobacco addiction and harm.

In April, Imperial Tobacco announced global sales of £13.4 billion and pre-tax profits of £974 million in the six months to 31 March. It is these huge profits made from selling its lethal products in more than 160 countries that are being ploughed into challenging the actions of governments around the world to use legislation to reduce the major harm caused by smoking to their citizens’ public health.

Earlier this year, the Office of Fair Trading fined Imperial Tobacco £112.3 million for unlawful tobacco pricing saying there was an understanding that the price of some brands would be linked to rival brands in order to limit competition. It is the largest fine ever handed out by the OFT for anti-competitive practices. However for Imperial, whose profits reached nearly a billion pounds in just six months, this is a drop in the ocean.

So that is what those of us trying to work for public health are up against. The vast profits tobacco companies make at the expense of people’s lives and wellbeing are ploughed back into more and more sophisticated marketing and recruiting practices, and into pursuing costly legal action against policies and legislation designed to reduce the deaths, diseases and anguish caused by tobacco.

In Scotland’s case tobacco accounts for a quarter of all adult deaths each year. I believe the health of our nation and our future generations is well worth fighting for.

h/t sheila duffy