8 December 2023
By Mary Assunta and Irene Reyes, Inter Press Service
UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights, ( on Human Rights Day December 10), we turn the spotlight on a glaring contradiction the world is experiencing from a harmful industry. Despite causing 8 million annual deaths and a myriad of diseases, the tobacco industry has enjoyed six decades of the legal right to manufacture and sell its harmful products.
This travesty to human rights remains unaddressed with no admission of liability, compensation for victims, or withdrawal of the product.
Instead, the tobacco industry has thwarted and undermined government efforts to protect public health, intimidated governments with legal challenges, used exaggerated data to persuade policy makers that tobacco is a good investment, and funded charity during crisis to polish its tarnished image.
The tobacco business and human rights are diametrically opposed. To protect public health, the UN global treaty, the WHO Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (WHO FCTC) has set standards to regulate the industry and reduce tobacco use globally.
Article 5.3 of the WHO FCTC empowers governments to shield their tobacco control policies from being derailed and undermined by the tobacco industry and its representatives. Governments can address conflicts of interest issues and keep the industry at arm’s length.
In 2017, the UN Global Compact removed the tobacco companies from its list in recognition of the harm caused by tobacco and hence deserving distinct treatment.
Despite the strong action from the UN system, the tobacco industry has remained defiant. To spruce up its image, it is even mischievously associating itself with human rights. Reports from Philip Morris International and Japan Tobaccoclaim to “respect” human rights, and BAT released a report on human rights and modern slavery.
Unfortunately, many governments have not utilised Article 5.3 of the WHO FCTC which provides clear guidance to avoid conflicts of interest and unnecessary interactions with the tobacco industry.
The 2023 Global Tobacco Industry Interference Index, a survey of 90 countries, has reported widespread unnecessary interactions between the government and the tobacco industry, opening the door for conflicts of interest through potential partnerships and collaborations. These interactions occurred even in countries that prohibit such engagements.
The Global Index is a civil society report on how well governments are protecting their health policies from tobacco industry interference according to the recommendations in Article 5.3 Guidelines and ranks countries accordingly
Figure 1: Global Tobacco Industry Interference Index 2023: Country Rankings
Some governments have taken action, but still face meddling from the industry. For example when they limit interactions with the tobacco industry, they often face challenges from industry-funded front groups, as seen in Uganda and Brazil. Usually, governments are unaware of their industry links because they have not implemented transparency measures.
The Global Index found that transparency and accountability are lacking globally, with most countries failing to implement rules for disclosure of industry ties. Most countries do not have rules for disclosure of meetings with the tobacco industry, a register of lobbyists from the tobacco industry, or policies to require the tobacco industry to disclose information on its marketing and lobbying.
In Asia, none of the 19 countries surveyed have a registry disclosing affiliations, or individuals linked to or operating on the tobacco industry’s behalf.
Since the harms of smoking are well established, the tobacco industry is now rebranding itself as a “responsible and caring industry” by marketing supposedly less harmful products, while simultaneously undermining government efforts to combat the tobacco epidemic and protect future generations.
Vaping (use of e-cigarettes) was even presented as ‘a human rights issue’ at an industry-sponsored event claiming it should be made affordable for smokers in poor countries. In Argentina, Malaysia, Philippines and Pakistan, industry front groups participated in discussions on the regulation of e-cigarettes and HTPs to convince governments to embrace these products.
The Southeast Asia Tobacco Control Alliance warns of the alarming increase in vaping, particularly among the youths. Countries that allow sales of e-cigarettes such as Canada, Indonesia, New Zealand, Philippines and the UK, have all seen rapid and high uptake by youths because enforcement is a challenge, as traders continue to market to minors, offering products in appealing designs and thousands of flavors and making them easily accessible online.
In 2022, the Philippines passed legislation on e-cigarettes that lowered the purchase age, allowed flavors and online advertising, contributing to the alarming rise of vaping among Filipino adolescents. The ease of access through online shopping platforms, lacking age verification, exacerbates the problem.
Malaysia recently passed a new omnibus tobacco control law, seen as weaker than originally proposed, and some policy makers have pointed a finger at Big Tobacco’s influence particularly in removing a forward-thinking generational endgame clause.
By yielding to industry influence, Malaysia has missed an opportunity to prevent future generations from becoming victims of the tobacco epidemic.
Malaysia ranked 78 out of 90 countries in the Global Index and their scores have been deteriorating over the years by allowing the tobacco industry in policy development and engaging in unnecessary interactions with the industry.
Governments alone hold the power to determine the health standards for their citizens and decide how to protect the current and future generations. Every instance of a government yielding to tobacco industry lobbying, represent a step backward in ensuring health and fundamental human rights of their people.
Mary Assunta is the Head of Global Research and Advocacy at Global Center for Good Governance in Tobacco Control; Irene Reyes is the Tobacco Industry Denormalization Manager at Southeast Asia Tobacco Control Alliance
IPS UN Bureau