Editorial: The ways of tobacco companies

For several decades, tobacco companies across the world vehemently denied and blatantly deceived and misled people about the dangers of smoking. That the American companies continued with their abhorrent acts of deception despite the U.S. Surgeon General warning 50 years ago that “cigarette smoking is a health hazard” is shocking. But the tide is turning, and these companies that continued with their ways are being brought to account. In a second major move, four American companies and the U.S. government recently reached an agreement on the “corrective statements” that the companies would advertise. Besides stating the facts about smoking, they would admit to deliberate deception, in advertisements that would be carried once a week in 35 newspapers and on TV five times a week for a year. These would also be carried on the companies’ websites for two years. If all goes well, the agreement would bring to an end a 15-year-old battle that started a year after the November 1998 Master Settlement Agreement that forced the companies into paying the 46 States $206 billion over 25 years for treating smokers who fell sick. The 1998 agreement also placed several advertising and marketing restrictions. Despite the damning exposure and the severe restrictions, the companies have unabashedly continued to improvise strategies to build their customer base; every day they successfully lure over 3,000 U.S. children to try their first cigarette.

Despite a significant drop in smoking incidence — from 42 per cent in 1965 to 18 per cent in 2012 — in the U.S., the habit still kills about half a million people annually. In India, tobacco use causes a million deaths every year. While the U.S. government has put in place several effective measures to reduce smoking, surprisingly it has adopted a regressive stand on implementing pictorial warnings on cigarette packets. In spite of unequivocal evidence supporting the effectiveness of pictorial warnings in preventing smoking initiation and encouraging smokers to quit, a U.S. court has halted its implementation on the ground that the regulation violates freedom of speech. The WHO’s 2005 Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (FCTC) treaty strongly endorses pictorial warnings. Though India introduced such warnings in 2009, these are highly ineffective and fail in their primary objective. It is time India introduced more effective ones and rotated them every year. The country needs to shift gears to battle tobacco use, paying heed to the report of the U.S. Surgeon General released recently that has found a direct link between smoking and many diseases, including Type II diabetes and liver cancer.

Published in the Hindu on February 7, 2014