THE BLOG
06/17/2015 01:52 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

A 'License to Kill'? 6 Million Lives at Stake Every Year

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If Philip Morris wins its case against Uruguay forcing them to scrap its laws aimed at safeguarding public health, smoking bans in other countries will also be threatened. Philip Morris will have a "license to kill". A ruling is expected very soon from the International Center for Settlement of Investment Disputes (ICSID), a branch of the World Bank.

One hundred million deaths in the 20th century, more than both World Wars combined, are attributable to smoking or inhaling tobacco. According to the World Health Organization, tobacco kills almost 6 million people every year, more than malaria (3 million), more than HIV/AIDS (2.5 million), more than tuberculosis (1,7 million). 600,000 of these are non-smokers involuntarily exposed to smoke. In total, tobacco use is responsible for the death of about 1 in 10 adults worldwide. [1]

The long-term effects of deliberate disinformation campaigns continue to make themselves felt, since 25 percent of U.S. citizens still believe that there is no solid evidence proving that smoking kills. [2] If the present trend continues, there will be one billion victims in the 21st century. Of these deaths, 70 percent to 80 percent will occur in countries with low or average incomes.

Despite these facts, the tobacco industry wants to continue to produce cigarettes. Philip Morris is even now suing countries -- Uruguay, Australia, Norway, and the United Kingdom -- for protecting its citizens from illness and premature death. These countries have adopted some of the best anti-tobacco legislation in the world.

Phillip Morris is suing them because the governments are increasing the size of health warnings on cigarette packets from 50 percent of the cover to 80 percent, and prohibiting tobacco companies from using sub-brands like Marlboro "light," "extra," "green," and "gold", in an attempt to give the impression that some cigarettes are safe to smoke.

Philip Morris claims that tax records from cigarette sales showed that warnings had "no effect at all" on consumption. If that was the case, one wonders why the industry spends so much effort to prevent them! In fact, the decrease in sales since the warnings were incorporated is dramatic. According to a study conducted by Uruguay's University of the Republic in collaboration with M.I.T., when the government started to crackdown on smoking in 2005, 40 percent of adults Uruguayans smoked. Today, only 23 percent of them do. Among the 12 to 17-year-old age bracket, smoking has been reduced from 30 to 13 percent. The decrease was especially marked among pregnant women. [3]

A Sad History of Deceit and Lack of Compassion

In the 1930s, German researchers demonstrated that tobacco leads to lung cancer, but their work was ignored. In 1953, Ernest Wynder and his colleagues at the Sloan-Kettering Institute in New York found that cigarette tar applied to the skin of mice led to deadly cancers. The tobacco industry panicked and launched a media campaign to convince the population that there was "no sound scientific basis for the charges." In 1967, the tobacco firm Brown and Williamson announced that, "there was no scientific evidence that cigarette smoking causes lung cancer or any other disease." It came to light later that scientists working for the industry actually reached the same conclusion as the other reports.

In the 1980s, after the Surgeon General concluded that passive smoking was also harmful to health, Philip Morris financed a project called Whitecoat, enrolling European scientists to "reverse the erroneous scientific and popular concept that environmental tobacco smoke is harmful to health."

Today, the tobacco industry has still not thrown in the towel. It is now targeting developing countries, and is prospering in Africa, in the Middle East, and in Asia (which is home to 60 percent of the billion smokers on the planet, 350 million of them in China alone). In Indonesia, for example, it offers young people a reward if they agree to transform their cars into ads for their brands. In China, Marlboro even sponsors school uniforms (with their logo, of course.)

According to a Philip Morris insider, an internal memo explains that, "Today's teenage[r] is tomorrow's potential regular customer, and the overwhelming majority of smokers first begin to smoke while still in their teens." A well-known trait of psychopaths is that they do not feel any remorse about the harm they cause to others.

How to Protect People from Being Harmed?

Since it is well established that banning advertising lowers cigarette consumption, the first thing to do is to ban all ads. Studies have also shown that most smokers aware of the dangers of tobacco want to stop smoking. Still, in many countries, few people know the specific risks of tobacco consumption (only 37 percent in China, where people smoke freely in crowded trains or buses). Governments need to be more proactive in informing their citizens about the serious dangers posed by smoking.

Even though many think that a ban is impractical in the context of globalization, countries like Finland and Australia have already taken the path of eradication with two initiatives: removing any positive image of tobacco by making all cigarette packs the same, and banning smoking in the streets to put an end to the phenomenon of imitation.

A very pragmatic way is to hit their wallets: A group of English medical experts is encouraging governments to have the public health bill systematically paid by tobacco companies, since they are responsible for all these diseases and deaths. [4] Philip Morris' revenue in 2013 ($80.2 billion) were higher than Uruguay's GDP ($55.7 billion).

As various international instances are about to pass a judgment on Philip Morris' court cases, let's remember that we need to save lives, not grant the industry a "license to kill".

References:
1. WHO: The Top 10 Causes of Death.
2. Tobacco history of deceit is described in detail by Naomi Oreskes and Erik Conway in their landmark book, Merchants of Doubt, Bloomsbury Press, 2011. See also the chapter "Institutionalized Selfishness" in the author's book, Altruism.
3. "Tobacco control campaign in Uruguay: A population-based trend analysis" as well as "Tobacco Control Campaign in Uruguay: Impact of Smoking Cessation During Pregnancy."
4. West, R. (2006). "Tobacco control: Present and future," British Medical Bulletin, 77-78 (1), 123-136.
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