Tobacco Industry Undermines Public Health Efforts Worldwide

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Tobacco use kills three million people worldwide each year, and is the leading cause of preventable death and disease in the developed world, accounting for close to 20% of all deaths.

Cigarettes kill nearly 500,000 people in the US each year-- more than heroin, cocaine, all other illicit drugs, auto crashes, homicides, and suicides combined.

If current smoking patterns continue, nearly one-tenth of the world's population will be wiped out by tobacco related diseases-- including over 200 million of today's children and teenagers, two-thirds of them in the third world.

Over 50,000 studies of the health effects of tobacco in dozens of countries have detailed its dangers. Worldwide, tobacco use causes about 90% of lung cancer deaths, 30% of all cancers, 20-25% of coronary heart diseases and stroke deaths, and more than 80% of chronic bronchitis and emphysema.

Nicotine, the drug in tobacco, is as addictive as heroin or cocaine. Tobacco use is recognized as a serious drug problem by the World Health Organization and the US Public Health Service.

The addictive nature of tobacco makes the industry's targeting of children and young people all the more insidious. Young people often have little understanding of the concept of addiction. A survey of US high school daily smokers found that only 5% of those teenagers thought that they would "definitely" be smoking 5 years later. In actuality, seven to nine years later, nearly 75% of them were still daily smokers.

The dangers of tobacco are clearly proven. People in the US and in many other parts of the world have demonstrated a will to take more aggressive action to stop tobacco's deadly toll. In a recent Gallup poll of US adults, more than half said all tobacco advertising should be outlawed, and more than three-quarters believed tobacco advertising that appeals to children should be banned.

Yet tobacco remains the least regulated consumer product in the US, and the tobacco industry is rapidly expanding its reach overseas. How can this happen?

The answer is that the tobacco industry has followed an effective strategy of disputing the health evidence, building a lobby powerful enough to defy public opinion in US lawmaking, and enlisting the support of the US government in imposing its deadly product and practices on other countries.

The Council for Tobacco Research:
Creating the Illusion of Controversy

For nearly 40 years, the industry-sponsored Council for Tobacco Research (CTR) has waged what the Wall Street Journal recently labeled "the longest-running misinformation campaign in US business history."

Portrayed as an independent scientific agency to examine "all phases of tobacco use and health," the CTR has actually been the centerpiece of a massive industry effort to cast doubt on the links between smoking and disease. According to Michael Pertschuk, former chair of the Federal Trade Commission, "there has never been a health hazard so perfectly proven as smoking, and it is a measure of the Council's success that it is able to create the illusion of controversy in what is so elegantly a closed scientific case."

The CTR's very success in deceiving policymakers and the public may ultimately prove to be a vulnerability for the industry. The Supreme Court last year said that smokers can sue accusing the industry of deliberately hiding or distorting the dangers of smoking, and a federal prosecutor is conducting a criminal investigation into whether the industry used the CTR to defraud the public. At least one former CTR employee has spoken out about the true purpose of the Council: Dorothea Cohen, who worked at CTR for 24 years until her retirement in 1989, says that "when CTR researchers found out that cigarettes were bad and it was better not to smoke, we didn't publicize that... the CTR is just a lobbying thing. We were lobbing for cigarettes."

The US Tobacco Lobby: Suffocating Health Policy

"Data" generated by the Council for Tobacco Research has been an effective tool in the hands of the tobacco lobby. Massive contributions to elected representatives are another means of manipulating policy to the tobacco industry's advantage.

  • In the 1991-92 election cycle, tobacco interests gave $2.3 million to Congressional candidates. Of all corporate donors, Philip Morris and RJR Nabisco were among the top seven.
  • In '91-'92, tobacco interests also gave $2.5 million to the major political parties. Three of the five corporate donors giving more than $100,000 to both the Republican and Democratic National Committees in the 1992 campaign came from the tobacco industry-- RJR Nabisco; Philip Morris; and the Tobacco Institute, the industry's lobbying arm.
  • The tobacco lobby has used misinformation and financial clout to develop what Representative Michael Synar of Oklahoma calls a "stranglehold over Congress."
  • Tobacco industry supporters in Congress have effectively killed a comprehensive measure called the "Tobacco Product Education and Health Protection Act", which would expand federal education and information efforts, require disclosure of the hundreds of chemicals in tobacco products, and make health warnings stronger and more prominent. In 1992, the chief sponsor of this legislation, Senator Edward Kennedy of Massachusetts, was forced to drop the bill as part of a compromise with tobacco supporters.
  • Congress has exempted tobacco from regulation under the Consumer Product Safety Act, the Toxic Substances Control Act, the Controlled Substances Act, the Federal Hazardous Substances Act, and the Fair Labeling and Packaging Act. When Synar introduced legislation that would give the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) clear jurisdiction over cigarettes, Walker Merryman, Vice President of the Tobacco Institute, commented, "it's a terrible idea... if the FDA asserts itself, it will end up in court."
  • Research and the experience of other countries have shown that a substantial increase in tobacco prices is the single most effective way to reduce tobacco use, especially among youth. For example, in Canada, where cigarette taxes quadrupled between 1984 and 1991 and are now about seven times the combined federal and state level in the US, smoking has been cut in half.

Despite the proven effectiveness of increased taxes in reducing smoking rates and saving lives, cigarette taxes in the US (as a percentage of the retail price) have dropped dramatically in recent decades: the tax share of the price of a pack of cigarettes has fallen in real terms from more than half in 1965 to under one-fourth in 1990. The US currently has the lowest cigarette excise taxes among the 19 leading industrialized nations.

The Tobacco Industry and the US Trade Representative

In the 1980's, the US Trade Representative helped to force open the markets of Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, and Thailand to US tobacco corporations, and challenged these countries' anti-tobacco health measures as unfair trade barriers. US-based transnationals have not only exported their addictive product, but also their sophisticated, extremely effective advertising and promotional techniques.

Formerly lethargic national companies have adopted aggressive new marketing tactics in response to US competition. The results are devastating: since the entry of US companies, smoking rates among young people in each of these countries have increased dramatically.

• Increased advertising

  • Japan, Korea, and Taiwan were all forced to repeal restrictions on cigarette advertising under the US trade threats.
  • In Japan, cigarette ads rose from fortieth to second place in total television air time in one year following the entry of US companies; two-thirds of the ads were for US brands. (16) On an average day, 60 ads for US brands appear on Japanese TV, many of them during programs watched by teens.
  • "Foreign cigarette companies have essentially introduced cigarette advertising into Taiwan," according to a tobacco industry publication.
  • The combined advertising budgets of three US tobacco companies in South Korea for 1988 were enough to make the US cigarette one of the country's most heavily advertised products. (19) Meanwhile, advertising and promotional expenditures for the Korean tobacco monopoly rose 641% between 1987 and 1990.

• Increased smoking rates

  • The total consumption of cigarettes in Japan, Taiwan, and Korea increased from 410 billion in 1986 to 455 billion in 1989.  Total cigarette consumption in Asia rose 3% in 1989, and experts predict a 20% increase over the next decade.  Young people in particular are picking up the deadly habit:
  • Since 1987 cigarette consumption by minors in Japan has increased 16%; a 1988 survey found that 25% of female high school seniors smoked, compared to 13% of adult Japanese women.
  • The smoking rate among Taiwanese high-school students jumped from 22% the year before US companies entered the market to 32% two years later.
  • Smoking rates among male Korean teenagers rose from 18% to 30% in one year after import restrictions were removed; among female teenagers, rates increased from less than 2% to nearly 9%.
  • Between 1988 and 1991, the number of Thai smokers aged 15 to 19 increased 24%.
AMP Section Name:Tobacco