Marie McInerney reports:
Tobacco companies are trying to influence health policies by “infiltrating” non-health policy areas, such as tax, customs and law enforcement, in Australia and masquerading as good corporate citizens to penetrate markets in the Pacific, according to tobacco control experts.
Warnings of tobacco industry interference in public policy across the Pacific came in multiple sessions at the recent Oceania Tobacco Control Conference in Hobart, including from Australia’s most senior tobacco control health official and a leading Pacific politician.
George Masri, Assistant Secretary of the Tobacco Control Branch in the federal Health Department, encouraged tobacco control experts to speak out on the risks of “direct and indirect tobacco industry interference” – including for MPs – that he said undermine efforts to cut smoking rates and pose big challenges for developing regions like the Pacific.
Another presentation urged firmer policies to address industry interference, outlining “worrying” access by the tobacco industry to stakeholder groups managed by the Australian Tax Office and Department of Immigration and Border Control.
Meanwhile, in his plenary address, Cook Islands Health Minister Nandi Glassie warned about industry tactics in the Pacific, where he said the risks of harm from tobacco were not only to health but also to climate change and sustainable development.
“Too often we experience the tobacco industry trying to disguise their corrupt practices as ‘corporate social responsibility’ when in fact they are all about profit and ensuring they have their next generation of consumers addicted,” Glassie said.
“In the Pacific we have seen them offer ‘leadership’ training and scholarships as well as sponsor public events and beautification programs,” he said, adding that the tobacco industry “often targets our non-health sector colleagues and organisations”.
He foreshadowed the release later this month of the Pacific Tobacco Industry Interference Index: A tool for monitoring the types and extent of tobacco industry interference – based on one developed by the Southeast Asia Tobacco Control Alliance (SEATCA).
Getting Big Tobacco to “butt out”
In 2003 Australia became one of the first nations to sign up to the World Health Organisation’s Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (FCTC), established to address the health, social, environmental and economic consequences of tobacco consumption and exposure to tobacco smoke worldwide.
Earlier this year, global media group Reuters reported that Philip Morris International has been running a secretive global campaign to block or weaken treaty provisions.
It published leaked documents saying the company sees the FCTC as a “regulatory runaway train” driven by “anti-tobacco extremists”, among them Australian public health advocates like Professor Simon Chapman and Professor Rob Moodie. Selected documents are available in a searchable repository.
Just recently, Philip Morris announced its support for the establishment of a new entity – the Foundation for a Smoke-Free World, which the WHO warned should not be taken at face value. It said Philip Morris engages in “large scale lobbying and prolonged and expensive litigation against evidence-based tobacco control policies”.
See also this call for the International Labor Organisation to cut its ties with Big Tobacco. The only member of the “UN family” to still have such links, the ILO is slated still to receive US$15 million through its partnership with Japan Tobacco International (JTI) and the Eliminating Child Labour in Tobacco Growing Foundation (ECLT).
Kylie Lindorff, Manager of Tobacco Control Policy at Quit Victoria, said industry currently has the opportunity to interfere in public policy in Australia via non-health agencies, including the Australian Tax Office and Department of Immigration and Border Protection.
In a presentation titled ‘Getting Big Tobacco to butt out’, she called for the Federal Government to better police and enforce its commitments under Article 5.3 of the FCTC, which obliges parties to the treaty to limit and transparently document interactions with the tobacco industry.
Her concern about non-health agency compliance with Article 5.3 was echoed in a separate plenary session; Masri said “we can’t be complacent when it comes to Big Tobacco and their supporters.”
Masri said it was “relatively easy” for health departments and ministries to understand the importance of limitations and transparencies of any interactions with the tobacco industry.
“It is more of a challenge to ensure that Article 5.3 obligations are actually understood more broadly in government and applied to other public officials, such as those in customs, excise, law enforcement portfolio agencies – or that it actually applies to parliamentarians.”
He told delegates there was potential for greater collaboration between the public sector and tobacco control experts to promote awareness in the general community as well as among public officials “about the dangers of direct and indirect tobacco industry interference, which fundamentally undermines the gains we have made in tobacco control”.
“We’re grateful when leading advocates raise this issue publicly or reinforce this when they’re meeting with public officials and parliamentarians,” he said.
Masri said a promised Article 5.3 “guidance note” for states and territories on awareness raising, limiting interactions with industry, rejecting partnerships with industry, and avoiding and managing conflicts of interest, is coming “soon”.
Croakey has twice requested details on timing and process from the Health Department but not received a response.
An “irreconcilable conflict”
Article 5.3 is a key clause in the FCTC to ensure public health policy is protected from commercial and other vested interests of the tobacco industry. It is driven by the powerful principle that:
“There is a fundamental and irreconcilable conflict between the tobacco industry’s interests and public health policy interests.”
The Guidelines for Article 5.3 include key recommendations that parties to the treaty should interact with the tobacco industry “only when and to the extent strictly necessary to enable effective regulation of the tobacco industry and tobacco products”.
They advise that any necessary interactions should be conducted transparently, rejecting partnership with industry, ensuring that preferential treatment is not given to the industry, avoiding conflicts of interest for government officials and employees, and requiring that information provided by the industry be transparent and accountable.
Lindorff, who won the Nigel Gray award – the Australian tobacco control sector’s highest honour – at this year’s conference, said Australia still does not have a formal policy or legislation specifically addressing tobacco industry interference or its requirements under Article 5.3.
Urging that the Health Department’s guidance note comes “as soon as possible”, she gave two examples that are currently causing concern, in particular that the tobacco industry is “trying to perpetuate the myth that illicit tobacco is solely a law enforcement issue, not a public health policy issue”.
“We’re seeing the tobacco industry use the illicit tobacco issue as a way to say they need to be ‘working’ with government agencies,” she later told Croakey.
“It’s also trying to shut out the Health Department on any illicit tobacco discussions by arguing it is an enforcement issue, rather than the tobacco control issue it is.”
Addressing illicit tobacco, she said, is clearly spelt out in the FCTC as an essential component of tobacco control.
Concerns re ATO, Border Control access
One example, Lindorff said, is the Australian Taxation Office’s tobacco stakeholder group, which is described as a consultative forum for representatives of the tobacco industry and the Department of Immigration and Border Protection to “discuss issues of mutual interest”.
Its statement of intent includes: “That all members have an understanding of the excise and excise equivalent goods systems in operation enabling fruitful discussions and are committed to improving the administration and operation of the excise and EEG tax systems into the future.”
“That is rather surprising or amusing,” Lindorff said, “considering how vigorously the tobacco industry has fought every single tobacco tax and price increase in Australia.”
Lindorff said she was concerned to learn from the group’s most recent minutes that the tobacco industry had been provided a platform to present a “flawed” KPMG report (see concerns from tobacco control groups here and here) on illicit tobacco.
The minutes note informally that “Gary” (a representative from Imperial Tobacco) “took members through a presentation” of the report and that: “TSG members did not endorse the report, but noted the presentation.”
The minutes also say the ATO had provided the forum with an update of recent operations relating to illicit tobacco, including several seizures in Victoria and New South Wales.
Lindorff said these interactions were inappropriate and “likely breaches” of Article 5.3, as were discussions on the licensing of tobacco retailing.
“These are clearly policy issues they’re talking about,” she said. “It gives them a forum to put their policy ideas forward and push their views.”
Lindorff also questioned the role of the Illicit Tobacco Industry Advisory Group, hosted by the Department of Immigration and Border Protection and which, according to the official website, “enables industry and government to work together to eliminate the trade in illicit tobacco”. In particular, it says:
- The Illicit Tobacco Industry Advisory Group will allow industry members and government representatives to share information about the illicit tobacco environment, including tobacco trade flows, supply chain security and the illicit tobacco market, and work together on measures that address illicit tobacco.
While some operational interaction may be required, she asked how sharing this level of information with the tobacco industry meets the “strictly necessary” provision of Article 5.3 and, if it does, whether it meets requirements for transparency.
Meeting summaries were “very, very, very summarised”, interactions were not conducted in public, and the department did not consult similarly with the tobacco control sector, she said.
“My view is by using illicit tobacco as a cover, the industry has infiltrated some government agencies in the past few years, and the level of interaction is well beyond what is allowed for in FCTC Article 5.3,” she said.
Croakey asked the ATO stakeholder group and DIBP for comment about these concerns. We have not heard back from the ATO but a spokesperson for the Department of Immigration and Border Protection said:
The Illicit Tobacco Industry Advisory Group enables industry and government to discuss ways to address the trade in illicit tobacco.
The Illicit Tobacco Industry Advisory Group complies with Article 5.3 of the World Health Organization Framework Convention on Tobacco Control.
The Illicit Tobacco Industry Advisory Group includes representatives of government, including the Department of Health, tobacco suppliers and tobacco retailers.
Summaries of meetings are published on the Department of Immigration and Border Protection’s website to ensure transparency.”
The spokesperson did not respond to our question about what steps are taken to regularly monitor compliance.
A barrier to Pacific development
Minister Glassie told the conference that the Pacific has made great strides in both border control and strengthening tobacco control laws since becoming parties to the FCTC, including through tobacco taxes (Cook Islands) and requiring licences to trade in tobacco products (Solomon Islands, Fiji and Palau).
Kirabati and Tonga recently joined the Marshall Islands and Palau in banning point-of-sale display of tobacco products, he said.
But while these are commendable examples of progress, strong tobacco control measures alone will not be enough, and health departments needed to recognise and emphasise that non-health sectors also play vital roles, he said.
“We have a responsibility to make the connections between tobacco control and other issues that concern sustainable development of our islands and our communities,” he said.
For example, he said, the significant deforestation involved in tobacco cultivation, where one tree is lost for every 300 cigarettes (15 packs), contributes to climate change, while littered cigarette butts are toxic for marine and land environments.
“Another example is the myth that tobacco contributes to economic development,” he said. “The reality is our big ocean states end up spending much of our budgets on tertiary treatment of non-communicable disease for which tobacco use is the leading preventable cause.”
It was a broader risk also raised at the conference by Annabel Lyman, Pacific Countries Coordinator of the FCTC’s Framework Convention Alliance.
Lyman said tobacco control should be a priority on country development agendas in the Pacific, recognising that tobacco use undermines both public health and efforts to meet the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals.
She urged Pacific delegates to persuade government officials that tobacco control is not a health issue only, and that multiple ministries, including finance and customs, should be engaged.
Veteran tobacco control expert Professor Mike Daube also warned, in the closing keynote, that a “resurgent” industry was working aggressively and strategically to not only prevent new tobacco control action but to “undermine progress”.
Read more here.
• Bookmark this link to follow our coverage of #OTCC2017. And flashback to Marie McInerney’s reports from #OTCC15. Download the full conference report here from the Oceania Tobacco Free Conference, held in Perth with the theme, “let’s make smoking history”.