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A license to kill? Six millions lives at stakes every year

By Matthieu Ricard on July 15, 2015

Smoking Child (2)

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, and this will give the company a license to kill. A ruling is expected soon from the International Center for Settlement of Investment Disputes (ICSID), a branch of the World Bank.

100 millions 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 millions), more than HIV/AIDS (2.5 millions), 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 disinformation campaigns continue to make themselves felt, since 25% of US citizens still think today that there is no solid evidence proving that smoking kills.(2)

If the present trend continues, that will make up to one billion victims in the 21st century. Of these deaths, 70% to 80% will occur in countries with low or average incomes.

Not only the tobacco industry wants to continue to produce, but Philip Morris is also suing countries—Uruguay, Australia, Norway and now 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 of their increasing the size of health warnings on cigarette packets from 50% of the cover to 80%, and their prohibition of tobacco companies’ use of sub-brands like Malboro “light,” “extra,” “green” or “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% of adults Uruguayans smoked. Today, only 23% of them do. Among the 12 to 17-year-old age bracket, smoking has been reduced from 30 to 13%. 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 is 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% 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, Malboro even sponsors school uniforms (with their logo, of course.) According to a Philip Morris insider an internal report explains that “today’s teenager is tomorrow’s good customer,” adding that “the vast majority of smokers began smoking during adolescence.” 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. So, 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% in China, where people smoke freely in crowded trains or buses). Governments should 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 the wallet: a group of English medical experts is encouraging governments to have the public health bill systematically paid by the tobacco companies, since they are responsible for all these diseases and deaths.(4) Philip Morris’ revenue in 2013 (US$80.2 billion) were highter than Uruguay’s GDP (US$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.

(1) http://www.who.int/gho/tobacco/en/ as well as 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 Doubts”, Bloomsbury Press, 2011. See also the Chapter Institutionalized Selfishness in the present author’s forthcoming book “Altruism”.
(3) http://www.thelancet.com/journals/lancet/article/PIIS0140-6736(12)60826-5/abstract, as well as http://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=2388461
(4) West, R. (2006). Tobacco control: Present and future. British Medical Bulletin , 77–78 (1), 123–136.