Time to ban the wolves in sheep's clothing

For many years, global tobacco’s ruling barons have cloaked themselves as good global citizens, softly spoken executives well-versed in the reassuring language of corporate social responsibility.

They have masqueraded as partners for decent and well-meaning programmes designed to improve the lot of the world’s poorest and most vulnerable. And you can see what they gain: an invitation to speak to decision-makers at the highest levels, which offers an aura of respectability and feeds the narrative of responsible partnership.

This is a lie. In reality, these companies sell toxic products that not only kills 7 million people a year, but also forces hard-pressed taxpayers to pick up the bill for the illnesses which they cause. It is an industry hooked on profit and devoid of responsibility.

Yet the industry’s efforts have had some success. Among others, the industry forged partnerships with the European Union, with the International Labour Organization (ILO) and with the UN Global Compact (UNGC), which encourages businesses to act responsibly and to advance key global programmes, such as the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

Times are changing and the net is closing on the global tobacco industry and the deals of yesteryear are coming under renewed scrutiny. Why? Well, in part because of the impact of the WHO Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (WHO FCTC), and also of the efforts of supporters around the globe, both in government and beyond.

As a result, the European Union’s multi-billion dollar deal with tobacco firms ended in 2016, while the ILO is currently reconsidering its cooperation with these companies.

Meanwhile, UNGC is reconsidering its position as part of an integrity review, which will be completed in July. While the UNGC does not encourage tobacco industry involvement or financing, its participants nonetheless include four tobacco companies, notably Philip Morris International and the Brazilian offshoot of British American Tobacco.

Clearly, no decisions have yet been made, but I am confident that our UNGC colleagues understand the critical issues at play and will make the right decision.

The world is much changed since the UNGC began in 2000. Five years later, the nations of the world came together to agree the WHO FCTC, the global tobacco control treaty. We now have 180 Parties who have accepted tobacco’s unparalleled threat to public health and agreed a wide range of measures to curb both supply and demand.

One key element of our work concerns the treaty’s Article 5.3, which requires Parties to protect public health policy-making from interference by the tobacco industry. It is unequivocal and rests on the substantial body of evidence that the industry does indeed interfere to further its own interests.

Almost every country in the world is committed to implement this Article and its impact is spreading. Recently, a historical resolution from the United Nations Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC) calls for UN agencies to develop and implement their own policies on preventing tobacco industry interference. The resolution evokes the model policy on preventing tobacco industry interference, which was developed in the context of the WHO FCTC by the United Nations Inter-Agency Task Force (UNITAF) on the Prevention and Control of Non-communicable Diseases.

This policy stated that: “The United Nations system … must [ensure] a consistent and effective separation between its activities and those of the tobacco industry, to preserve its integrity and reputation and in promoting development. Engagement with the tobacco industry is contrary to the United Nations system’s objectives, fundamental principles and values.”

The policy is clear and underlines the importance of rooting out the tobacco industry’s deleterious influence to ensure the achievement of development goals.

This is a critical issue, as the industry well knows. In its 2015 report to the UNGC, Phillip Morris International stated that the company “recognizes the importance of the UN Sustainable Development Goals and especially Goal 3 on health.” PMI’s “contribution” is to develop and sell its heated tobacco and e-tobacco products, which it claims are lower risk than traditional tobacco products, although it also terms them “addictive and not harmless”.

This is precisely the sort of doublespeak at which the tobacco industry excels.

Target 3.a of the SDGs, which is part of Goal 3, requires countries to strengthen implementation of the WHO FCTC. And in case there is any doubt, the WHO FCTC does not foresee manufacturers as part of the solution. They are the problem, given that their products are highly engineered so as to create and maintain dependence, and that many of the compounds they contain and the smoke they produce are pharmacologically active, toxic, mutagenic and carcinogenic.

There is more, much more, to say about the tobacco industry and its inglorious history. Its suppression of research into the effects of its products, its longstanding involvement in tobacco smuggling, its bribery of government officials and other attempts to distort good decision-making, and its reliance on child labour.

It is hard to see how this kind of behaviour accords with laudable documents such as the UNGC’s 10 Principles. Given its role in spreading death and disease among millions of people and exacerbating poverty, the tobacco industry can only ever be a hindrance to global development. It needs to be shown the door.

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