Tobacco continues to kill over 7 million people per year and costs the global economy almost 2% of its GDP, more than 1.4 trillion dollars per year.
Big tobacco companies produce and market cigarettes, a unique, addictive product that kills half of its consumers when used as intended. So, it is not surprising that their products are recognized as a barrier to achieving development and human rights objectives, and it is no accident that tobacco is the only consumer good for which there is an international treaty on regulation.
Just last year, tobacco giant Philip Morris International (PMI) approached the Danish Institute for Human Rights (DIHR), a government funded body, to collaborate on a "human rights implementation plan" for PMI. The DIHR was given access by the corporation to assess PMI's value chain, in essence running a “Human Rights” audit for PMI. This collaboration was noticed by a Buzzfeed reporter who published an article on the topic (in German here, translated to English here).
The final human rights report has not been made public, but following DIHR’s completion of their work for which they had been paid 90,000 Euros, the DIHR concluded in a public statement on its website that:
"Tobacco is deeply harmful to human health, and there can be no doubt that the production and marketing of tobacco is irreconcilable with the human right to health. For the tobacco industry, the UNGPs [United Nations Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights] therefore require the cessation of the production and marketing of tobacco."
Allan Lerberg Jørgensen, Department Director, Human Rights and Development with the DIHR, stated they hoped their:
“input will enable PMI to better understand how the corporate responsibility to respect human rights applies to their business and take the necessary action.”
Clearly the sale of cigarettes is irreconcilable with human rights. The necessary action that DIHR references is clear: if PMI is serious about human rights, it should stop producing, marketing and selling products that kill their consumers.
Given all we know about cigarettes, one cannot help but wonder why such a lethal product can be so easily purchased almost everywhere in the world. An individual may have the right to consume tobacco and self-administer nicotine, but is it appropriate for large multinational corporations to continue to profit while pushing a defective product on the global market? If the world wants to achieve development and human right objectives, it may be time to reconsider how we allow big tobacco companies to operate in the 21st century.
Aptly, the theme for this year’s World No Tobacco Day was “Tobacco, a threat to development.” The world has begun to take an approach that views tobacco as the threat to development and human rights that it is. As the World Health Organization reminds us “all countries have committed to the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, which aims to strengthen universal peace and eradicate poverty.” The 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development or (SDGs) are grounded in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and international rights treaties, and they seek to “realize the human rights of all.” Key elements of this agenda include the implementation of the global tobacco treaty, the WHO Framework Convention on Tobacco Control, and by 2030 reducing by one third premature death from noncommunicable diseases (NCDs), which include heart and lung diseases, cancer, and diabetes, for which tobacco use is a leading risk factor. Reducing or eliminating the death and disease caused by tobacco is crucial for development and for the protection of human rights around the world.
During an interview in 1954, the Vice President of Philip Morris said, “If we had any thought or knowledge that in any way we were selling a product harmful to consumers, we would stop business tomorrow.” Tobacco companies have known for decades the myriad harms that tobacco causes and yet they continue to produce and market a product that is recognized as a barrier to global development and a barrier to achieving human rights principles.
Given the magnitude of the damage that tobacco companies cause to our world, over 7 million deaths per year and a more than 1.4 trillion US dollars loss to the global economy, isn’t it time for our society to reconsider how cigarettes are sold?
Should tobacco products continue to be sold as a regular consumer good that can be purchased in airplanes, convenient stores, gas stations and almost everywhere? Or, do tobacco products require a regulatory response that is proportionate to the damage they cause?
Countries around the world need to accelerate and strengthen their implementation of the best practices set out in the international tobacco treaty, the FCTC, but it is also time to ask ourselves “is this going to be enough?” Despite significant steps towards tobacco control, 1 billion people will die from tobacco related diseases this century.
If tobacco products were released as a new product today, there is no possibility that they would be allowed on the market. It is time to reconsider the “grandfathering in” of tobacco and to treat cigarettes as if were introduced in the market today. Tobacco is a deadly historical legacy that we do not need to prolong. It’s time to leave tobacco in the past where it belongs and make space for healthy and sustainable global development.