Today is World No Tobacco day – a perfect chance to celebrate a campaign success that has helped limit the power of big tobacco companies.
Tobacco is a huge global health problem. If current trends persist, tobacco will kill more than 8 million people worldwide annually by the year 2030, with 80 percent of these deaths in low- and middle-income countries.
If we want people to be healthy, we need to take action on tobacco use. That means regulating the tobacco market (plain packaging and warnings on labels), increasing taxes to put people off smoking, and making it less acceptable to smoke in public. Taxes are proven to be particularly effective: for every 10% increase in prices, tobacco use goes down 4% in high-income countries, and 6% in low and middle-income countries. A price increase of 10 percent would reduce the number of smokers by 42 million worldwide and save 10 million lives.
In the UK, we’ve done quite well at all of this – and as a result, tobacco use is coming down. The flip side of this success is that tobacco companies have been forced to look even more at low and middle-income countries to support their ‘growth’ (read: death) strategies. In China alone, there are thought to be as many as 300 million people who smoke. This is why we run a specific programme in China aimed at limiting tobacco –related health risks, for instance by helping mothers and children reduce their exposure to second-hand smoke. Across huge parts of south-east Asia and Africa, tobacco use is still increasing too. This needs to stop, and increasing taxes is a part of doing just that.
This is why it was concerning that groups like the International Tax and Investment Centre (ITIC)- an organisation with close ties to the tobacco industry – have been lobbying on behalf of tobacco companies to try and stop countries increasing taxes on tobacco and cigarettes. ITIC’s sponsors include all of the leading transnational tobacco companies, and its board of directors includes representatives from four leading tobacco companies.
Lobbying through the benign sounding ITIC gave tobacco companies a level of secrecy and respectability that they don’t deserve given that they are directly responsible for a growing public health crisis. They have willfully deceived the public for years about the harmful effects of tobacco use.
Fortunately, following a campaign led by tax justice campaigners, cancer charities and development organisations, the ITIC has dropped its relationships with tobacco companies! No tobacco companies will sponsor the ITIC or sit on its board. This is great news.
The campaign was effective because it raised the issue of the ITIC’s links with tobacco companies with other ITIC sponsors, including organisations like the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank. These powerful organisations put pressure on the ITIC to ‘clarify’ its links with tobacco companies – and last week they agreed to cut all ties with them.
This is a small but important step forward in the battle against big tobacco companies.
Of course, we’re under no illusion that this is the end of the issue. There’s no doubt that the tobacco companies will use other channels and front organisations to continue to lobby governments to stop further increases in tobacco taxes – despite its proven effectiveness as a public health tool. And we know that tobacco companies have tried to use trade and investment agreements to claim compensation from governments that bring in regulations that force companies to put graphic warnings on cigarette packaging. Most famously, Philip Morris sued Uruguay for just such a measure. (Luckily, they failed to get their compensation, but it still has a chilling effect on other governments’ behaviour who are scared of being sued or couldn’t afford to lose a court case).
But even as we remain vigilant to future challenges, it’s worth celebrating these small victories. Particularly today.