United States | May 8, 2015 at 9:00 am

Big Tobacco: Why Smoking Is Not Going Away


1200px-Pilgrim_Smoking_Beedi_-_Gangasagar_Fair_Transit_Camp_-_Kolkata_2013-01-12_2707The decline of smoking and tobacco use in the United States over the last 50 years is well-documented. The fact that smoking in America is at the lowest it has been in the last 50 years has reportedly saved over 8 million lives, and the decreasing use of tobacco products has been heralded as a public health victory.

However, while tobacco use has declined within the United States, tobacco companies have been expanding overseas, where the customer base for smoking is growing ever larger. Worldwide tobacco sales increased 7 percent between 2001 and 2013, and the United States has fallen to become the third-largest consumer of cigarettes, behind China and Russia.

The reason for the shift is mostly the increased regulations on the tobacco industry in the United States. Many experts credit policy changes for driving down the smoking rate over the past five decades by imposing stiff cigarette taxes, requiring warning labels on cigarette packages, and banning smoking on domestic flights and in some public areas. These regulations have cut into the industry’s profit margins, and in doing so they have created an incentive for American tobacco companies to pursue foreign markets.

Shifting the market base is not a new trend. Philip Morris, one of the largest tobacco companies in the United States, has been selling more of its products abroad than domestically since the 1990s, and contemporary growth in the industry is largely attributable to the increase in tobacco consumption in developing markets in low and middle-income countries. Of the 667 billion cigarettes sold in 2014, 197 billion were sold in the Pacific region, and 227 billion were sold in Europe, the Middle East, and Africa. In many countries—including Russia, Indonesia, and Armenia—more than 50 percent of men smoke daily.

Tobacco companies are also lobbying rigorously against regulation, marketing their products heavily, and manipulating regional prices. The tobacco industry, particularly in developing countries, is employing litigation and ad campaigns to thwart efforts to restrict tobacco use or even label tobacco as harmful. In Uruguay, lawyers for Philip Morris even halted a public health measure to put a warning label on cigarettes. As a result, many countries are almost powerless to decrease tobacco use and increase public health awareness.

Uruguay is not alone in facing resistance from the tobacco industry. Philip Morris has also fought regulations in Australia and Thailand when those countries also tried to implement new labeling requirements clearly depicting the effects of smoking on health. Foreign companies too, like Japan Tobacco, have lobbied against new regulations in emerging markets in the Asian-Pacific region. Another U.S. company, BAT, has tried a somewhat different approach in Nigeria, offering cash prizes to journalists who deride regulation and write tobacco-friendly articles.

With powerful tobacco companies condemning increased regulations, public health officials face an uphill battle to implement any new regulations. Hindered by a lack of international guidelines regarding tobacco use and receiving little support from the United States, countries targeted by the tobacco industry have had little success in implementing public health measures. This problem stems from the fact that the international body tasked with tobacco regulation, the Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (FCTC), cannot combat increasingly-resistant companies intent on protecting their profits and customer base. Further complicating the issue is the fact that the United States signed but never ratified the FCTC, so it is not bound by any FCTC provisions.

Other nations have ratified the FCTC and are forging ahead, but the implementation of common standards has often been ineffective. Canada, the European Union, India, Kenya, South Africa, Thailand, and China have all made promising first steps to enact globally-standardized tobacco regulation, but their attempts have stalled.

Currently few, if any, U.S. government officials seem likely to get involved with enforcement of international tobacco standards or push for more regulation of American companies selling to foreign markets. Significant political obstacles make ratification of the FCTC nearly impossible for politicians with an eye toward their own political future.

The most prominent hurdle to U.S. ratification of the FCTC seems to be the power the tobacco industry wields over electoral outcomes. In 2014, the tobacco industry reported over $22 million in political contributions to congressional candidates from both parties, and the industry proved its willingness to spend large sums to defeat new excise taxes, spending nearly $50 million to trounce a 2012 proposition in California.

The power of the industry to destroy the electoral prospects of regulation-minded representatives at least partially explains the unwillingness to advocate for international standards but does not fully elucidate the situation. The distance, both figurative and literal, between the home districts of representatives and overseas tobacco markets makes the exploitation of smaller, less-developed countries less pertinent to politicians seeking to impress voters in this country. While this explanation surely does not tell the full story, it at least partially explains why American politicians have not felt an urgent need to confront the power of the tobacco industry.

Many countries are committed to fighting against “Big Tobacco” and enacting shared standards, yet the United States continues to sit on the sideline praising its own successful efforts to reduce domestic tobacco usage. While successful at home, the country has abandoned developing nations to fight an industry that is both willing to push back against public health measures and financially equipped to do so. But despite the physical distance from their own districts, failure to act on tobacco is something American politicians can be held accountable for—after all, it is American regulation that shifted the market to begin with.

Image Source: Wikimedia Commons /  Biswarup Ganguly

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