26 July 2021
Mike Daube, Rob Moodie. Source: Insight+
IMAGINE an airline announcing that a “superspreader” had won its Passenger of the Year Award. Metcash – “Australia’s leading wholesale distribution and marketing company”, has managed a similar coup with its recent announcement that British American Tobacco (BAT) has received the Metcash Supplier of the Year Award.
We have known for more than 70 years that cigarettes are lethal. Even now, they kill more than 20 000 Australians each year and an estimated 8 million people globally. Recent Australian research has shown that cancer risks are significant even for so-called “light” smoking (1-5 cigarettes a day). Cigarettes are so harmful that they may not be sold to children and adolescents, advertised or even displayed in stores, and their packaging has to carry gruesome warning labels. As long ago as 1967, Senator Robert Kennedy said:
“Cigarettes would have been banned years ago were it not for the tremendous economic power of their producers … The cigarette companies have demonstrated a total inattention to public responsibility.”
BAT is one of the world’s largest tobacco companies, with over 12% of a global market for a product that causes some eight million deaths each year. It has been widely criticised over decades for its marketing, lobbying, and efforts to oppose government control campaigns and policies.
The dramatic reduction in smoking has been one of the key factors in Australians now leading longer and healthier lives. This significant public health achievement has required a hard-fought 50-year battle against the tobacco industry’s persistence in “subverting the subverting the role of governments and of WHO in implementing public health policies to combat the tobacco epidemic”.
And now at time when pressure is growing both internationally and in Australia to end the commercial sale of cigarettes, Metcash, a major national company selling myriad products to independent retailers such as IGA, has chosen one of the world’s largest tobacco companies for its “Supplier of the Year Award”, and is helping to sanitise BAT’s image.
What was in their minds? This is the only consumer product sold in Australia that kills up to two-thirds of its current consumers when used precisely as intended. The annual social and economic costs of smoking in Australia are estimated at $136 billion. The more you sell, the more people will die from a vast range of conditions: that is why Government mandated messages on the pack read, “Smoking Kills”.
The ethics of awarding prizes to tobacco companies in any context are self-evidently questionable.
Metcash’s Financial Report for the year ended 30 April 2021 barely mentions tobacco, other than to say that “tobacco sales represent a significant proportion of the products Metcash supplies to its independent retailers”, and-noting without irony that an “estimated net adverse impact of ~$10.0m from the loss of stock profits due to there being no tobacco excise increase in September 2021”.
With Australian tobacco deaths running at over 20 000 a year, “a significant proportion” of Metcash tobacco sales is also likely to represent a significant amount of cancer, heart disease, respiratory disease, assorted other conditions and the related deaths.
Metcash must surely realise that the world has changed. It is now well and truly time for them to reconsider both the ethics the optics of distributing tobacco and highlighting this in an award. If any company willingly distributes a product known to be lethal, what does that say about their commitment to corporate and social responsibility, let alone the health of their customers?
Metcash promotional materials make much about caring for the community, including the health of the community. On the night they lauded BAT as their supplier of the year Metcash gave $100 000 to a breast cancer charity. It is a sad irony that smoking is linked to a higher risk of breast cancer in younger, premenopausal women and can increase complications from breast cancer treatment. The wonderful breast cancer nurses supported by the McGrath Foundation would rightly be encouraging their patients to quit smoking.
Metcash is, of course, not alone. Major supermarkets, notably Woolworths and Coles, are the largest sales outlets for cigarettes in Australia, with over 50% of the market between them. The boards and senior executives of these companies also face the hard reality that the products they sell have caused hundreds of thousands of deaths when used precisely as intended. But meantime, Aldi in Australia has shown that major supermarket chains can manage perfectly well without selling cigarettes.
What should senior executives at Metcash do?
At the very least, they should rescind the award.
If they truly wish to be consistent with their other admirable forms of community support, even if they do not want to follow the Aldi lead by ending all cigarette sales now, they could ensure that in all outlets cigarettes are moved to the back of the store, with no visible promotion of any kind. And they should work with other major sales outlets on a plan to phase out all commercial sales of tobacco products by 2030 at the latest, as recommended by health organisations.
The tobacco industry is not planning to go away in a hurry. The CEO of another of the world’s largest tobacco corporations (and another Metcash supplier), Imperial Brands, recently confirmed that “with the new strategy, there is a refocus on the core business” of selling cigarettes.
We do not expect companies like Metcash to re-write history. But in 2021— in full knowledge of the invariably harmful, routinely lethal and frequently tragic effects of smoking—they can and should stop selling a product that kills so many of their customers. And they should not give awards to tobacco companies.
Mike Daube is Emeritus Professor in the Faculty of Health Sciences at Curtin University.
Rob Moodie is Professor of Public Health at the University of Melbourne School of Population and Global Health.