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Warning: The Tobacco Industry is Not Your Friend [1]


I Background
II The Tobacco Industry as Disease Vector
III The Framework Convention on Tobacco Control and Article 5.3 Guidelines
IV Theme of World No Tobacco Day 2012 Is Tobacco Industry Interference
V Evidence of Tobacco Industry Interference in Canada and Violations of Article 5.3 Guidelines
VI Conclusions and Recommendations
VII References
VIII Key Resources for Further Investigation

--submitted by Lorraine Fry, Executive Director of the Non-Smokers’ Rights Association/
Smoking and Health Action Foundation, and Melodie Tilson, Director of Policy, Non-Smokers’ Rights Association/ Smoking and Health Action Foundation

I Background

Tobacco is the number one preventable cause of death in the world and is a risk factor for six of the eight leading causes of death globally. [2] Tobacco use caused 100 million deaths in the 20th century, and if current global trends continue, tobacco use will claim one billion lives in the 21st. [3] Tobacco is the only legal product that kills when used exactly as the manufacturer intends and there is no safe level of use. [4] As Margaret Chan, Director General of the World Health Organization (WHO) put it in her keynote address to delegates at the 15th World Conference on Tobacco Or Health: “In a world undergoing economic upheaval, with populations ageing, chronic diseases on the rise, and medical costs soaring, tackling a huge and entirely preventable cause of disease and death becomes all the more imperative.” [5]

In Canada, we’ve achieved considerable success in reducing morbidity and mortality due to tobacco use, cutting prevalence from 50% in 1965 to 17% in 2010 (15% in Ontario). [6] However, tobacco remains the number one cause of preventable death in Canada, responsible for some 37,000 deaths each year. [7] There is still much to be done to minimize the burden of disease and death.

II The Tobacco Industry as Disease Vector

One of the unique factors of the tobacco epidemic is that the disease vector, unlike the agents of other major epidemics, is an industry. For 40 years, the tobacco industry conducted a campaign to deceive the public about the known health consequences of tobacco use: the industry lied about the addictiveness of nicotine, the health risks of smoking, and the dangers of exposure to second-hand smoke. This deception, combined with aggressive and predatory marketing designed to addict underage youth, led to a massive increase in tobacco consumption. Throughout this four-decades-long campaign, governments enacted virtually no regulation that the industry did not want. [8]

Much of what we know about the industry’s historical practices is due to the 1998 Master Settlement Agreement (MSA) between the Attorneys General of 46 American states and the four largest tobacco companies in the U.S., which resulted in the public disclosure of millions of pages of industry documents. The MSA settled the lawsuits—for some $250 billion—by the 46 states to recover costs associated with treating smoking-related illnesses. [9]

In the past few years, all 10 Canadian provinces have passed legislation to facilitate healthcare cost recovery lawsuits against Canadian tobacco companies and their parent companies, and four provinces have filed suit. In September 2009, Ontario launched a $50 billion lawsuit against a group of 14 tobacco companies for recovery of health care costs. Ontario’s statement of claim alleges that the defendant tobacco companies knew about the addictiveness of cigarettes and the health damages they caused, deceived the public by misrepresenting the risks, failed to warn the public about the dangers of smoking, promoted cigarettes to children and teens, and did not take all available steps to reduce the risks caused by their products. [10] The importance of cost-recovery litigation in Canada can’t be underestimated. As the lawsuits proceed, the public will learn much more about the industry’s role in the epidemic, and if successful, the suits will greatly reduce the power of tobacco companies.

III The Framework Convention on Tobacco Control and Article 5.3 Guidelines

The WHO Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (FCTC) is an international evidence-based treaty adopted in May 2003 in response to the globalization of the tobacco epidemic. The FCTC sets international standards and guidelines for tobacco control. To date, 175 countries are parties to the treaty, including Canada. [11] Article 5.3 of the FCTC pertains to limiting tobacco industry interference: “In setting and implementing their public health policies with respect to tobacco control, Parties shall act to protect these policies from commercial and other vested interests of the tobacco industry in accordance with national law.” The Article 5.3 Guidelines recognize the role of the tobacco industry in creating and perpetuating the epidemic and emphasize the “fundamental and irreconcilable conflict between the tobacco industry’s interests and public health policy interests.”

Seven of the eight measures in the Article 5.3 Guidelines apply to the tobacco industry in Canada:

  • Raise awareness about the harmful nature of tobacco products and industry interference in tobacco control.
  • Establish measures to limit interactions with the tobacco industry and ensure transparency of interactions.
  • Reject partnerships and non-binding agreements with the tobacco industry.
  • Avoid conflicts-of-interest for government officials.
  • Require that information provided by the tobacco industry is transparent and accurate.
  • Denormalize and regulate industry Corporate Social Responsibility activities.
  • Do not give preferential treatment to the industry.

IV Theme of World No Tobacco Day 2012 Is Tobacco Industry Interference

The theme of this year’s World No Tobacco Day, on May 31, 2012, is tobacco industry interference. The campaign is focusing on “the need to expose and counter the tobacco industry's brazen and increasingly aggressive attempts to undermine global tobacco control efforts.” At the World Conference on Tobacco OR Health 2012, WHO Director General Margaret Chan focused on role of the tobacco industry in undermining tobacco control and perpetuating addiction, disease, and preventable death: [14]

“‘We’ve come a long way, bullies. We will not be fazed by your harassment. Your products kill nearly six million people each year. You run a killing and intimidating industry, but not in a crush-proof box. Tobacco industry: the number and fortitude of your public health enemies will damage your health.’”

V Evidence of Tobacco Industry Interference in Canada and Violations of Article 5.3 Guidelines

In Canada, there is ample evidence of tobacco industry interference in policy-making and violations of Article 5.3 Guidelines. Over the last two decades, as Canadian governments have moved to regulate the industry, tobacco companies have aggressively opposed virtually every meaningful regulatory initiative and deliberately undermined health policies.

Recently, the industry relentlessly lobbied the federal government against a new package warning system. [15] (Canada’s health warnings on packages hadn’t been updated for 11 years and had grown stale.) The government almost shelved the new warnings indefinitely, only reversing its position after intense pressure from health groups and prolonged negative media coverage. [16] Imperial Tobacco Canada denounced the warnings announcement, claiming the government was ignoring “today’s real tobacco problem”—contraband cigarettes, [17] disregarding the fact that the vast majority of cigarettes smoked in Canada are supplied by the legal manufacturers. The tobacco companies have now filed a lawsuit against the warnings. [18] An Imperial Tobacco Canada  open letter on World No Tobacco Day 2011 attacked various government measures to reduce tobacco use, arguing that contraband was such a big problem that governments focus exclusively on that issue. [19] At the same time, however, British American Tobacco (Imperial’s parent company) was telling investors that contraband in Canada was down by almost 50%. [20] The industry position on contraband is part of its ongoing successful efforts to prevent the federal, Ontario, and Quebec governments from increasing tobacco taxes. [21]

Another way some tobacco companies have interfered with tobacco control progress is by undermining the ban on flavourings in cigarettes, cigarillos, and blunts through product innovations: cigarillos were made slightly heavier to be classified as cigars [22] and blunts became bluntarillos [23] such that these products can legally be sold with all of the prohibited flavours.

Another key tobacco industry activity is the undermining of Canada’s near ban on promotion through innovative packaging designs. Most of the focus on advertising and marketing has now turned to the package, the one remaining venue of communication with the consumer. [24] Significant new trends are the use of novel package shapes and the move to a different style of opening. Many of the traditional four-sided slide-and-shell packs have been replaced with an eight-sided, beveled-edge fliptop. When the pack is opened, the health warning graphic is obscured. One pack of du Maurier was covered in cellophane wrapping that advertised a completely new brand variant—charcoal filtered du Maurier! Pack shapes have been designed to mimic cell phones, so popular with youth. And superslim cigarettes targeting (young) women have proliferated. Many of the packs of superslims are not only colourful, chic and innovative but also serve to circumvent hard-fought tobacco control measures in addition to the ad ban. A pack of Benson & Hedges Superslims, for example, is almost the same size as a kiddy-pack of five or 10 cigarettes that was banned in 1994. As well, tobacco companies have started to use the inside of the pack almost as much as the outside to convey brand image—flashy foils, colour-coded and embossed liners, interior text, and specialized cuts, such as the V cut in the new pack of Canadian Vogue that mirrors the stylized V of the logo.

Australia has recently introduced plain packaging to strip the companies’ ability to use the package to market their brands. The industry’s aggressive action to derail plain packaging in Australia, including multiple costly lawsuits in various courts, [25] could also serve to weaken support among Canadian politicians for plain packaging.

Canadian tobacco companies continue to buy goodwill and legitimacy via philanthropic funding and Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) initiatives. Imperial Tobacco Canada provides donations to the arts and cultural sectors, [26] giving them legitimacy and visibility. In recent years, Canadian tobacco companies have also donated to political parties, placed tobacco executives on hospital boards, and funded hospital care units and university courses in business ethics and corporate social responsibility. [27] Tobacco companies publicly support and form alliances with anti-crime organizations such as Crime Stoppers. [28] Under the FCTC, donations by tobacco companies for “socially responsible causes” are considered a form of sponsorship promotion. Canada is obligated under the treaty to enact a “comprehensive ban of tobacco advertising, promotion and sponsorship,” which includes prohibiting CSR activities.

Further violations of Article 5.3 Guidelines in Canada are the continued investments by governments in tobacco company stocks and conflicts-of-interest such as Barbara McDougall serving concurrently as a Board member of Imperial Tobacco and as the Chair of the International Development Research Centre, a Canadian public corporation that funds research in the developing world on tobacco control policy. [29]

VI Conclusions and Recommendations

The need for sustained comprehensive tobacco control in Canada is as great as it ever was. Some 4.7 million Canadians still smoke, and tobacco use remains the number one cause of preventable death in Canada. [30] Perhaps even more important, for every tobacco-caused death, there are an estimated twenty people living with—and suffering from—a tobacco-caused disease. [31]

It is crucial to treat an epidemic like an epidemic. A key part of that is addressing the source of the epidemic—the tobacco industry—head on. Understanding the role of the industry in perpetuating the tobacco epidemic increases public support for further tobacco control regulation. There is another added benefit to greater public understanding of the industry’s role. Studies have shown that anti-industry attitudes correlate to quitting among adults. Beliefs that tobacco use is socially unacceptable and that the tobacco industry can’t be trusted are associated with intentions to quit smoking. [32] Research has also shown that negative beliefs about the tobacco industry correlate to lower rates of youth smoking. [33]

As a party to the Framework Convention on Tobacco Control, Canada has a legally-binding obligation protect tobacco control policies from tobacco industry interference. To fulfill these obligations, the federal and provincial/territorial governments need to implement the following measures:

  • Conduct an ongoing mass media and social media campaign to educate the public fully about the risks of tobacco use and the tactics used by the industry to undermine tobacco control initiatives.
  • Divest all tobacco company stock.
  • Ban industry Corporate Social Responsibility programs.
  • End all tax breaks for marketing and other expenditures.
  • Ensure transparency in all dealings with the industry. This includes interacting with tobacco companies only to the extent necessary to regulate them effectively. It also includes making public (and easily accessible) the details of all such interactions as well as industry reports to government on its marketing, sales, and research activities.

VII References

1. A theme of the California Tobacco Control Strategy, which appeared in newspaper ads and on billboards in 1990. SA Glantz and ED Balbach, Tobacco War: Inside the California Battles, 2000.
2. World Health Organization, WHO Report on the Global Tobacco Epidemic, 2008: The MPOWER package. 2008.
3. World Health Organization, WHO report on the global tobacco epidemic, 2011: warning about the dangers of tobacco, 2011.
4. World Health Organization, WHO Report on the Global Tobacco Epidemic, 2008: The MPOWER package. 2008.
5. M Chan, “Galvanizing global action towards a tobacco-free world: Keynote address,” 15th World Conference on Tobacco or Health, Singapore, 20 March 2012.
6. Propel Centre for Population Health Impact, Tobacco Use in Canada: Patterns and Trends  2012 Edition, 2012.
7. D Baliunas, J Patra, J Rehm, et al, “Smoking-attributable mortality and expected years of life lost in Canada 2002: Conclusions for prevention and policy,” Chronic Diseases in Canada 2007; 27(4): 154-162.
8. P Hilts, Smokescreen: The Truth Behind the Tobacco Industry Cover-up, 1996.
9. Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids, “A Broken Promise to Our Children: The 1998 State Tobacco Settlement 13 Years Later,” 30 November 2011.
10. Ontario Superior Court of Justice, Statement of Claim, Between Her Majesty the Queen in Right of Ontario, Plaintiff, and Rothmans Inc., et al, Defendants, 29 September 2009, Court File No. CV-09-38798.
11. World Health Organization Framework Convention on Tobacco Control.
12. Guidelines for implementation of Article 5.3 of the WHO Framework Convention on Tobacco Control.
13. See
14. M Chan, “Galvanizing global action towards a tobacco-free world: Keynote address,” 15th World Conference on Tobacco or Health, Singapore, 20 March 2012.
15. S Schmidt, “$3.6-million anti-smoking campaign went up in smoke,” Postmedia News, 7 December 2010.
16. See Standing Committee on Health, House of Commons, Evidence Number 44, 9 December 2001.
17. Imperial Tobacco Canada, “Press release: Canada’s Health Minister Chooses to Ignore Today’s Real Tobacco Problem,” 30 December 2010.
18. Imperial Tobacco Canada, “Press release: “75% graphic health warnings go too far,” 25 April 2012.
19. Imperial Tobacco Canada, “Press release: Open Letter by Imperial Tobacco Canada,” 31 May 2011.
20. M Cobben, “Managing the challenges in the Americas,” Investor Presentation, May 2011.
21. The federal government has not increased tobacco taxes since June 2002. The last tobacco-specific tax increase in Ontario was in February 2006. Tobacco taxes in Quebec are the lowest in the country.
22. See “Cigar FAQ,” Casa Cubana website.
23. See, for example, Bongs and Such Ltd. website, Calgary.  
24. See Non-Smokers’ Rights Association, The Case for Plain and Standardized Tobacco Packaging, 2009.
25. J Schneider, “Australia Plain-Pack Law Challenged by Tobacco Companies,”, 29 March 2012.
26. See Imperial Tobacco Canada Foundation website at
27. See Non-Smokers’ Rights Association, Tobacco Industry Denormalization, March 2004.
28. Ontario Medical Association, “More Smoke and Mirrors: Tobacco Industry-Sponsored Youth Prevention Programs In the Context of Comprehensive Tobacco Control Programs in Canada, A Position Statement,” February 2002.
29. Editorial, “Canada’s perceived lack of leadership on global tobacco control,” Canadian Medical Association Journal, 21 June 2010.
30. JL Reid, D Hammond, R Burkhalter, R Ahmed, et al, Propel Centre for Population Health Impact,Tobacco Use in Canada: Patterns and Trends, 2012 Edition, 2012.
31. US Department of Health and Human Services, The Health Consequences of Smoking: A Report of the Surgeon General, 2004.
32. RE Malone, Q Grundy, LA Bero, “Tobacco industry denormalisation as a tobacco control intervention: a review,” Tobacco Control 2012; 21(2): 21: 162-170.
 D Hammond, GT Fong, MP Zanna, et al, “Tobacco Denormalization and Industry Beliefs Among Smokers from Four Countries,” American Journal of Preventive Medicine 2006; 31(3): 225-232
33. RE Malone, Q Grundy, LA Bero, “Tobacco industry denormalisation as a tobacco control intervention: a review,” Tobacco Control 2012; 21(2): 21: 162-170.
ST Leatherdale, R Sparks, VA Kirsh, “Beliefs about Tobacco Industry (mal) Practices and Youth Smoking Behaviour: Insight for Future Tobacco Control Campaigns (Canada),” Cancer Causes & Control 2006; 17: 705-711.

VIII Key Resources for Further Investigation