Fighting Big Tobacco in Malaysia, 31/01/12



JAN 31 — In a country where 46 per cent of males smoke, and where the government spends RM20 billion a year treating tobacco-related illnesses, it is imperative that we as a society demand greater health protection, and stronger tobacco laws.

However, in the enactment of tobacco laws to protect public health, and also in the execution of anti-tobacco/pro-health advocacy, there has been a long history of tobacco industry interference which undermines and very often, blocks efforts from materialising altogether. As someone who has had exposure to tobacco policies and regulation, I am fearful that tobacco industry interference is the most significant obstacle that policymakers and anti-tobacco advocates face today.



Malaysia is a signatory of the World Health Organisation Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (hereinafter the WHO–FCTC) which states under Article 5.3 that parties to the Convention should ensure that policy is protected from vested interests of the tobacco industry and tobacco industry interference.

The reason for this is that the tobacco industry has for decades tried to circumvent policy that protects public health. In the 1930s, when reports first started coming out about the negative health effects of cigarettes, the tobacco industry began decade-long campaigns to refute the authenticity of these reports, and portray cigarettes as safe products, including the famous: “Most Doctors Smoke Camels” advertisement.

Unfortunately, tobacco industry interference in anti-tobacco campaigns continues to this very day, and in fact is increasingly influential. Here are several examples: In 1988 in California, when Californians voted to increase tobacco tax, Big Tobacco increased political contributions to the California state government, and the governor at that time took steps to block anti-tobacco ads paid for by that tax.

Oswal et al in their 2010 article in the Indian Journal of Cancer stated that in India, the tobacco industry lobbied heavily to influence the public to believe that graphic pictorial warnings were religiously offensive and that tobacco farmers would be adversely affected. It is important to note that the latter argument is frequently used worldwide, and tries to draw attention away from the fact that tobacco farmers themselves suffer from tobacco poisoning due to constant contact with tobacco leaves, and that tobacco farming requires heavy use of pesticides, which has adverse environmental effects. It also conveniently forgets to mention Article 17 of the WHO-FCTC which states that parties should provide support to farmers for economically-viable alternatives.

Shockingly, Malaysia’s 2012 Budget did not call for increase in tobacco taxes at all — a measure which has been proven to have the biggest short-term impact on tobacco use. This proof is contained in the 1999 World Bank Report “Curbing the Epidemic: Governments and the Economics of Tobacco Control”, which states that a 10 per cent increase in price of a pack of cigarettes would decrease demand for cigarettes by eight per cent in middle- and low-income countries.

This may have been influenced by the fact that smuggled cigarettes are often reported as being at 40 per cent. What the public does not know is that these figures are from a heavily-biased tobacco industry study done by collecting litter around football stadiums and Felda settlements. Preliminary studies by university academics show the more realistic figure to be around 20 per cent.

In addition to the use of biased studies, over the years, the tobacco industry has also been very smart in recruiting influential persons or persons with previous government links to fill positions in their companies. A quick Google search of the Board of Directors of any large tobacco company will reveal names of highly influential persons, recognizable names that make tobacco lobbying just that much stronger.

The WHO provides measures to effectively deal with the tobacco epidemic; these are called the MPOWER measures — all of which have in the past and currently face tobacco industry interference. These effective measures are: Monitoring of tobacco use; Protection from tobacco smoke; Offer help to cease smoking (cessation techniques); Warning of harms of tobacco use; Enforce advertising bans; and Raise taxes.

Under the “P” measure i.e. protection from tobacco smoke, governments the world over have enacted laws for smoke-free areas — whether entire geographical areas, or specified establishments such as bars. In 2004, Ireland banned smoking in bars, and the tobacco industry stated that this would affect businesses. Eight years on, the Irish still frequent the pubs, negating the words of Big Tobacco.

In the campaign for smoke-free areas, the tobacco industry employs front-groups such as restaurant owners associations and tourism groups, stating that restaurant business would reduce and tourism would reduce. I could be wrong, but logically persons frequent restaurants for food and touristic areas for scenery and recreational activities — not to smoke. Furthermore, evidence has proven that in New York, which banned smoking in restaurants, business was not adversely affected. In fact, the New York Restaurant Association and the Restaurant Union President supported smoking bans in restaurants for public health reasons.

The above anecdotes and worldwide experiences show that tobacco industry influence is rife and extremely powerful. As someone who has had tobacco control experience, I can verify as to interference that is alive and well, and that if we don’t stand up, we won’t just have 45 per cent of male smokers. That figure will increase unless something is done. Political will and the voice of the people will be imperative in defeating tobacco industry lobbying, and ensuring that Malaysians’ health is better protected.

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