Mr. President, please don’t sell your people to Big Tobacco

When Sri Lankan President Maithripala Sirisena was that country’s health minister, he was offered a certain amount of money — “enough to buy properties for 15 generations of my family” — by a major tobacco company if he aborted his policy on strict tobacco control, as reported in September 2013. However, he rejected this offer outright because he valued his country and its people.

The then minister said tobacco companies had asked him not to introduce pictorial warnings on cigarette packages. “The company representatives continuously tried to approach me when I was in parliament, at home and at the office,” he recalled. But he did not meet them, as there was nothing to discuss, Sirisena was quoted as saying.

In 1997, the US tobacco industry mounted an unprecedented lobbying effort aimed at convincing Congress to support the industry’s sweetheart deal. Tobacco companies and industry associations reportedly spent more than US$35.5 million lobbying Congress and the executive, or more than $66,000 for every Congress member.

This money paid for prominent law firms, former Congress members, former Capitol Hill staffers, an ex-governor and a former Republican Party leader.

Philip Morris Company, Inc. splashed out $15.8 million to push this deal, followed by RJR Nabisco, which spent $5.4 million to promote the bailout. Lobbying efforts have become more aggressive in other countries as well since most of the civilized world is introducing strict regulations to control tobacco consumption in a bid to protect people’s health.

The burden of health care will be much heavier if tobacco consumption goes uncontrolled.

Even in the US, one of the Healthy People 2020 program objectives is to reduce tobacco use to 12 percent in 2020 from 180 percent in 2008. (Our own industry minister, by contrast, wants relaxed regulations to take the pressure of the country’s tobacco companies.)

The American tobacco industry is experiencing the biggest crush in the last two decades, everywhere in the world, and is looking for new markets.

Ironically, this move is supported by the American government. It is as if the US government is telling tobacco-pushers, “Don’t poison American people with your product; go and poison foreigners!”

The easiest targets are developing countries with weak governments and weak tobacco regulations.

In the past tobacco firms have tried, with the assistance of the US government, to persuade Thailand, Korea, Japan and Indonesia. Only Indonesia has welcomed them whole-heartedly.

As former economics and environment minister Emil Salim said recently, Indonesia is an easy target for the tobacco industry invasion because of its weak governance and the corrupt mentality among its politicians.

President Jokowi, you will soon fly to the US and as part of your visit you will surely meet the American Chamber of Commerce, which includes big tobacco companies, as well as President Barack Obama.

Big American Tobacco will then offer you a big promise to invest in Indonesia. Of course they will not openly offer you money. A few years ago Phillip Morris indicated an intention to close its factory in Malaysia (and perhaps also Australia) and relocate it to Indonesia. They know how the Indonesian government is very weak and how politicians are easy to bribe at the cost of people’s, especially the poor’s, health.

Please remember that your government has signed up to the Sustainable Development Goals, which state that tobacco consumption leads to increased poverty — which I believe is against your ideals as stated in the Nawacita, your nine priorityprograms.

Tobacco consumption causes disease and reduces people’s productivity and quality.

So, Mr. President, have a very nice trip to the US, but please do not sell your people to Big Tobacco. I certainly hope that you will be as brave, if not more courageous, than Sri Lanka’s leader in defending the health of your people.

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