Tobacco industry interference holds back efforts to stamp out smoking

26 July 2019
Telegraph

Tobacco industry interference with government policy is hampering global efforts to stamp out smoking, a new report warns. 

study by the World Health Organization looking at global progress towards ending the “tobacco epidemic” shows that many countries are lagging behind in implementing policies proven to reduce levels of smoking.

The WHO’s Framework Convention on Tobacco Control, agreed by nearly all countries of the world, lays out specific measures that governments should implement to help their citizens quit smoking.

The measures – which include policies such as smoking bans, graphic warnings on packaging, high levels of taxation and advertising restrictions – are proven to help encourage smokers to quit tobacco, thus saving lives from the growing burden of non-communicable diseases such as cancer and reducing health care expenditure.

However, just two countries – Turkey and Brazil – have implemented all six recommended measures at the toughest possible level to encourage smokers to quit.

The report shows that in 2017 there were about 1.4 billion tobacco users aged 15 and above worldwide. That number has only declined slightly since 2007 when there were 1.46 billion smokers. However, the proportion of smokers globally has fallen from 22.5 per cent to 19.2 per cent over the same period – a 15 per cent reduction. 

There are some five billion people living in countries that have implemented smoking bans, graphic warnings on packaging and other control measures – four times as many as a decade ago. However, the WHO report shows that many countries are still not doing enough – and tobacco industry interference is holding back progress.

The report highlights the range of tactics cigarette firms employ to influence policy such as setting up front groups to fabricate support, influencing scientists, making unproven claims and exaggerating the economic importance of the industry.

The report highlights the Foundation for a Smoke-Free World, fully funded by cigarette company Philip Morris International.

The foundation, which was established with a grant of $80 million a year over 12 years, funds research programmes and studies that are supportive of so-called “reduced risk” tobacco products, such as e-cigarettes or devices that heat rather than burn tobacco. The cigarette companies say this makes them less harmful/ 

The foundation offers funding to governments, universities, UN agencies, other international bodies and the public health community to encourage smokers to use these products, the report warns.

The WHO has said that it will not partner with the organisation and has urged governments to follow its lead.

Last year Bloomberg Philanthropies, which funded the WHO report, established Stopping Tobacco Organizations and Products (Stop), the world’s first tobacco industry watchdog. Stop has launched an online database, highlighting a wide range of organisations in 22 countries acting as what it describes as “tobacco industry allies” – organisations which purport to be independent but which receive funding from the tobacco industry and promote the tobacco companies’ agenda.

In the UK, the organisations it highlights include the free-market think tanks the Adam Smith Institute and the Institute of Economic Affairs, which it says have both taken funding from the tobacco industry and have both promoted pro-tobacco policies. 

Dr Kelly Henning, who leads the public health programme at Bloomberg Philanthropies, said tobacco industry interference was one of the key reasons why tobacco control policies were not introduced. 

“One of the places where we see some of the most obvious and most direct interference are initiatives around raising tobacco tax. The tobacco industry will very often have easy access to ministers of finance and will suggest that raising tobacco taxes will reduce revenue and harm business. And we know from research this is not the case,” she said.

She said that in Indonesia tobacco firms have worked with groups of farmers to raise fears over the impact of tobacco reduction.

“It takes time for people to quit and farmers have time to adapt and prepare. We haven’t seen massive unemployment in farmers,” said Dr Henning. 

The report says that provision of stop smoking services must be increased – some 2.4billion people live in countries which now provide full stop smoking services but only 23 countries provide these services at best practice level. 

Smoking cessation services include national free quit lines, mobile phone services, counselling and free nicotine replacement therapy. 

Just four per cent of people who want to quit smoking manage to do so without help, the report warns. Nicotine replacement therapy, such as patches, are the most effective aids to quitting.