(First published in Norwegian 9 Sept 2008)
By Pia A. Gaarder
The World Health Organisation (WHO) is an important critic of the tobacco industry. The report “On the Global Tobacco Epidemic, 2008” is not only a scientific summary of the effect of tobacco smoking on public health and mortality globally but also a severe confrontation with the tobacco industry and its lobbying to win territory in the developing world.
For it is in the developing world that tobacco smoking now is increasing most. Poor families in Bangladesh use 10 times more money on tobacco than on education, and in Indonesia the low-income groups use 15% of their total income on tobacco, according to the WHO report.
The tobacco companies pressure the ruling powers in the poor part of the world not to carry out tobacco control and not to increase the tax level. Giant tobacco companies evade the tobacco legislation in their native countries through fusions and joint ventures with local companies in developing countries. Altria Group and Imperial Tobacco Group have, for example, bought up shares in tobacco companies in the Dominican Republic, Indonesia, Mexico and Pakistan.
The report demonstrates that the whole tobacco industry’s business goal – to get ever more consumers dependent on tobacco – strikes especially hard both in the developing world and, increasingly, in the poorest part of the population in industrialised countries.
Exclusion as Strategy
Prior to this summer Norwatch contacted WHO to obtain the UN’s opinion of the significance of a big funds investor such as the Norwegian Government Pension Fund – Global withdrawing from the tobacco industry. The ethical guidelines of the Fund are to be revised, and one of the topics will be whether the tobacco industry is to be excluded from the Fund.
The government is working on the case, and recently Kristin Halvorsen, Minister of Finance, cleared the road for the possibility that the government would suggest that the tobacco industry should be excluded.
WHO did not answer Norwatch’s queries directly but sent them on to one of their independent experts, Stella Bialous, senior adviser to the Tobacco-Free initiative in the WHO and leader of the organisation Tobacco Policy International.
In an e-mail to Norwatch the WHO adviser strongly recommended a withdrawal: “If the Norwegian Pension Fund – Global sells off its shares in the tobacco industry, this will create a precedent and a model that it can be done and it should be done for ethical reasons,” Bialous wrote.
She pointed out that tobacco is the only consumer product in which half of the consumers can be expected to die of tobacco-related diseases when the product is used in the manner in which the producer intends it to be used. Exclusion of companies that in themselves are legal but which make a product that potentially can cause great damage, such as tobacco products, could constitute a very important measure.
“Should one distinguish among the tobacco companies and only sell off shares in those companies that behave worst and address tobacco advertising to children, falsify research reports, and corrupt and bribe politicians to prevent tobacco supervision and so forth?” Norwatch asked.
“I think all tobacco companies should be excluded. To exclude just a few is not optimal. Despite possible differences and contribution variations, all the companies’ mandate is to make a profit from selling a product that causes great suffering, disease, and death.”
“Should the ownership be used actively with regard to tobacco companies and influence them to establish a better ethical standard?”
"It could be, but there are several groups, at least in the US, that have been doing this but, so far, with no results", Bialous answered, and continued:
"The majority shareowners seem, to date, to not have questioned industry practices. And again, the companies' definition of ethical way of doing business is not aligned with what those promoting tobacco control believe. All companies will for exmple have a code of ethics in their website", Bialous concluded.
WHO on the Tobacco Industry
Because of the high mortality and the negative effects on public health, WHO considers tobacco smoking an epidemic.
“Like all epidemics the tobacco epidemic also has an infection source that spreads disease and death. In this case it is not a matter of a virus, a bacterium or other microorganisms but of an industry and its business strategy,” WHO writes.
WHO’s tobacco report can be seen here: http://www.who.int/tobacco/mpower/en/