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Tobacco Lights Into WHO

Legal Times  September 14, 2000

 

Beijing - The world's largest cigarette makers have embarked on a global lobbying campaign to undermine a proposed international treaty that could place tight restrictions on cigarette advertising and smuggling.

Negotiations over the treaty, which is being organized by the World Health Organization, are set to begin next month in Geneva and are expected to take at least two years. Like most treaties, it is crafted through a consensus process, and individual countries ultimately decide whether they want to sign or not.

Cigarette makers are largely excluded from the talks, so the three major multinational tobacco companies -- the Philip Morris Cos., British American Tobacco (BAT), and Japan Tobacco -- have taken their case against the treaty directly to most of the 192 countries involved in drafting the document.

"We are trying to make sure that the governments locally understand the full scope of what the WHO is trying to sell to them to make sure that they understand that this has the potential of far-reaching consequences," says Axel Gietz of Japan Tobacco, which last year purchased all of the R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co.'s international operations.

"We are not asking WHO for voting status," says Philip Morris Vice President for Corporate Affairs Don Harris. "We are asking for participation in the thing and to [have them] consider our views."

From country to country, the cigarette companies are making the case that the treaty should be considered an economic, not just a public health, issue. The companies are coordinating their activities in nations where more than one company is present.

BAT and Japan Tobacco say they are explicitly lobbying to kill the treaty. Philip Morris says it is not necessarily against an international tobacco pact, but prefers regulation on a country-by-country basis.

The companies tailor their pitch in approaching individual governments. In China, for example, the companies warn of massive tax losses if the treaty succeeds in cutting down the rate of smoking. In Malawi, where tobacco is the country's main agricultural export, they make dire predictions about the collapse of the local agricultural economy if the pact is adopted. In Lebanon, they predict hundreds of millions in advertising losses.

Harris of Philip Morris says that all of his lobbying on the treaty is being done in the most open way possible. "We are not going to dispute the process or be adversarial or confrontational," he says.

But public health officials expressed skepticism in the wake of an August report from the WHO that brought to light how multinational tobacco companies had for decades secretly infiltrated the institution through the use of front groups to systematically undermine anti-smoking efforts.

"For them to say that they have been excluded from this debate is disingenuous in the extreme when you look at the activities they have undertaken to infiltrate and suborn the processes of WHO," says Judy Wilkenfeld of the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids. Wilkenfeld is the former director of the tobacco advertising section of the Federal Trade Commission.

Doug Bettcher, treaty coordinator for the WHO, says the industry has been presenting misleading information to countries about the organization for years. He declines further comment, other than to say he is "quite confident that the negotiations will continue."

The industry has already scored a major victory in China that could well affect the outcome of the Geneva talks. While each country gets only one vote in the negotiations, larger countries have significantly more bargaining power.

China, with one-third of the world's smokers, will be among the most powerful players. The way in which the tobacco companies were able to influence the Chinese government illustrates the often indirect nature of the lobbying effort in each country.

BAT officials convinced the Chinese-owned tobacco company, with which it has a joint venture, that the WHO treaty could present a severe economic threat, given that cigarette taxes account for 10 percent of all tax revenue. To protect its interests, BAT pressed state tobacco company representatives to get themselves included in the Chinese delegation, which originally was to include only health officials. BAT even brought in three experts from London to lecture the Chinese on the possible economic effects of the treaty.

"BAT persuaded the monopoly to look at it from a national economic perspective," said BAT public affairs director Brenda Chow last May, as she took a break from the briefing that her company was giving to Chinese tobacco officials in Beijing. "We are the bridge."

The Chinese tobacco company took BAT's advice, lobbied government officials in charge of selecting delegates, and were added to the negotiating team. Judith Mackay, a Hong Kong-based tobacco control expert who advises the WHO and the Chinese government, fears that the addition of the state tobacco company to the delegation could seriously skew the negotiation process because the state tobacco industry's economic power gives it far more sway than the health ministry has with top Chinese decision-makers.

PROXIES, PRESSURE, THREATS

In many cases, it appears that the tobacco companies have attempted to exert their influence through proxies.

In Malawi, BAT was successful in getting tobacco growers appointed to the country's WHO delegation, says John Kapito, himself a delegate and the head of a nongovernmental public health group. Nonetheless, Kapito thinks that the Malawian government will favor a strong treaty, as youth smoking is on the rise. BAT currently advertises its brands -- called Life and Embassy -- near schools, hospitals, and churches, says Kapito.

In Lebanon, Philip Morris operated behind the scenes to fight the health ministry's anti-smoking program, says Yousef Bassim, who runs a tobacco control program in that country. "They are trying to put pressure on our activities. But not directly," he says. Bassim says he was present when the head of a local advertising agency that does work for Philip Morris threatened a television interviewer that he would lose his job if he asked the health minister about tobacco issues. Bassim also cites recent advertising industry warnings that banning tobacco advertising could cost the country $500 million in lost revenue.

In Indonesia, BAT and Philip Morris approached a local nongovernmental organization, the National Committee on Smoking Control, to ask for the group's support in getting tobacco representatives on the WHO delegation. The companies made their request in the midst of an offer to aid with youth smoking programs, says Mia Hanafiah, an official with the anti-smoking group. Her group turned the companies down, she says. As of today, the tobacco companies are not on the delegation. In Japan, little lobbying is necessary, as Japan Tobacco is owned by the Ministry of Finance.

Japan Tobacco purchased the international operations of R.J. Reynolds last year and is now actively lobbying in all the countries where it has significant operations, says spokesman Axel Gietz. He says the company has already successfully made its case against the WHO treaty in Russia, Romania, and Turkey, although he declined to elaborate. In Germany, it's still unclear what position the government will take on the WHO treaty.

But the tobacco industry's "influence is immense," says Dr. Martina Poetschke-Langer, the head of the Cancer Prevention Unit of the National Cancer Research Center. She cites internal company documents that surfaced in the course of U.S. litigation that reveal that the industry has contacts at the highest levels of the German government.

"They are lobbying day and night the members of our parliament," says Poetschke-Langer.

The industry's work appears to have paid off in a related matter. The German government is fighting in court the 1998 ban on cigarette advertising passed by the European Parliament.

For its part, the negotiating team from the United States will include representatives from an interagency task force that include the departments of Agriculture, Treasury, and Commerce. The White House has consulted, and will continue to consult with, tobacco companies, growers, and public health groups, according to an administration spokeswoman who spoke on condition of anonymity.

While WHO officials had expected the cigarette makers to take some action in response to the treaty, says Mackay, the Hong Kong-based tobacco expert, it was not clear how much the companies would impact the process.

"It worries me," she says, "that they may be more successful than some people had bargained for."

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