Tobacco Industry’s Interference in Government Policy Increases Globally

Tobacco Industry’s Interference in Government Policy Increases Globally

Tobacco industry interference in governments’ tobacco control policies has increased in 43 out of 90 countries analysed over the past two years.

This is according to the Global Tobacco Industry Interference Index 2023 released on Tuesday by tobacco watchdog STOP, and the Global Center for Good Governance in Tobacco Control (GGTC).

“No country has been spared from the interference, and there is a worsening trend,” said Mary Assunta, CGTC’s head of research and advocacy. “More countries deteriorated in their scores compared to countries that improved” – with only 29 countries improving efforts to push back against industry.

Countries with the highest level of interference are the Dominican Republic, Switzerland, Japan, Indonesia and Georgia – and this is also reflected in “poor tobacco control measures in their countries”, according to the report.

Governments that are party to the World Health Organization (WHO) Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (FCTC) are obliged to protect their health policies from the commercial and other vested interests of the tobacco industry.

But the report exposes a range of interfering behaviour – including governments accepting tobacco corporate social responsibility (CSR) contributions, politicians accepting campaign contributions and officials weakening controls in the face of industry scare tactics.

The CSR handouts focused on post-COVID recovery programmes, environmental protection, such as cigarette butt cleanups and tree planting.

“Non-health departments, especially finance, commerce and customs, continued to be targeted by the industry and were persuaded by exaggerated claims of industry’s contributions to the economy,” Assunta told the media briefing to launch the report.

“They believed the industry’s narrative that illicit trade will worsen if taxes are increased. Hence, in some countries – Colombia, Mongolia, Malaysia and Turkey – there was no [cigarette] tax increase, while in others there were delays in tax payments.”

Politically compromised

“Policymakers in many countries became vulnerable to industry interference when they placed themselves in situations of conflict of interest. This happens either through accepting industry donations for political campaigns or investing in the tobacco business, a revolving door situation of retiring senior government officials joining tobacco companies, or industry executives taking up senior government positions,” said Assunta.

In Uruguay, although tobacco sponsorship including political donations is outlawed,  Montepaz, which controls 85% of the Uruguayan tobacco market, contributed to the financing of the president’s election campaign.

In Colombia, the former Director of Regulation at the Ministry of Commerce joined Philip Morris International (PMI) as its head of external affairs for Colombia and Perú.

In Bangladesh, a British American Tobacco (BAT) director is the senior secretary in the Prime Minister’s Office. In Gabon, the chair of the board of a tobacco body, CECA-GADIS, is currently a political advisor to the Head of State. In Switzerland, a member of the National Council (the larger house of the Swiss legislature) is also the salaried president of the Swiss Tobacco Trade Association. Switzerland has not ratified the FCTC, neither has the US.

Mary Assunta, CGTC’s head of research and advocacy.

The governments of Bangladesh, Jamaica, Korea and Zambia still invest their pension funds or national insurance funds in the tobacco business. The Bangladeshi government holds a total of 9.4% shares in BAT Bangladesh, the Korean government owns 7.7% shares in tobacco company KT&G,  and Zambia’s pension schemes have shares in BAT Zambia.

Meanwhile, in many African countries, tobacco companies gain prominence through charity.

“In countries like Zambia, Uganda, Tanzania, Nigeria, Madagascar, Gabon, Ghana, Cameroon and Nigeria, the tobacco industry engages in activities like granting scholarships, providing classrooms, training young people in agriculture or promoting young entrepreneurship,” said Leonce Sessou, executive secretary of the African Tobacco Control Alliance.

Sessou added that the industry supported a number of NGOs to promote itself, particularly in the youth sector.

Impact of industry influence

The growing influence of industry was experienced very directly in many countries.

Malaysia’s Wency Bui told the launch that her government had de-listed nicotine as a poison after lobbying by Japan Tobacco International (JIT). This enabled the company to market nicotine products such as e-cigarettes.

Tobacco companies also successfully lobbied for the end of bans on e-cigarettes, heated tobacco products (HTPs) and/or nicotine pouches in Egypt, Kenya and Uruguay. In Uruguay, the Ministry of Public Health even used information provided by Philip Morris International (PMI) instead of its own experts.

Five countries – Bolivia, Guatemala, Jamaica, Tanzania, and Zambia – reported that the tobacco industry sabotaged efforts to pass comprehensive tobacco control legislation.

Applying pictorial health warnings on tobacco packs was delayed in Chad, Bangladesh, Laos and Nigeria, and the implementation of standardised tobacco packaging has been undermined by the tobacco industry in Georgia, Myanmar and Uruguay.

Some progress

Global Tobacco Industry Interference Index 2023

However, Brunei, New Zealand, France, the Netherlands and Botswana are the top five countries that performed well in pushing back against the industry. Meanwhile, Ukraine improved the most in its push-back against industry despite fighting the Russian invasion.

The Netherlands has a protocol for civil servants interacting with the tobacco industry their  Code of Conduct on Integrity (Gedragscode Integriteit Rijk) contains guidelines on interacting with tobacco lobbyists.

Botswana is in the process of finalising regulations to implement its Tobacco Control Act in 2021, which prohibits any partnership, agreement or contributions from the industry to any public body.

The report was launched at the start of the 10th Conference of the Parties (COP10) meeting on the Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (FCTC) in Panama City, which will assess countries’ progress on tobacco control.

Source: Health Policy