Two papers in PLoS Medicine this week highlight again the tactics used by the tobacco industry when attempts are made to regulate them.
The WHO Framework Convention on Tobacco Control was the first international public health treaty initiated by the World Health Organization; it came into force in 2005 and thus far 176 countries (see below for the latest) have become parties to it. If the importance of a piece of regulation can be judged by how much those it seeks to regulate protest against it, then this is indeed important. The first paper, by Heide Weishaar and colleagues, based on an analysis of internal tobacco industry documents made public as a result of litigation, paint an interesting picture of the tactics used when it was being proposed including: lobbying and infiltration of organisations and committees with influence; use of scientists to create doubt and undermine evidence about the negative impacts of tobacco use and the efficacy of tobacco control measures; and the use of media to influence public opinion. The companies were not even afraid to tackle the WHO head on. Reference 143 is a letter to the then Director General of the WHO, Gro Harlem Brundtland, asking for the opportunity to work together with WHO, although perhaps they even realised this was a stretch as they concluded that,“We do not suggest that WHO and Philip Morris share all of the same goals.”
The paper is particularly timely as the WHO has selected “tobacco industry interference” as the theme of this year’s World No Tobacco Day Campaign, which began on 31 May but runs throughout the year. As WHO notes, “The campaign will focus on the need to raise awareness of and counter the tobacco industry’s attempts to undermine the WHO FCTC.”
The story told in the second paper by Risako Shirane and colleagues indicates this is an ongoing battle as it suggests that the tobacco industry’s tactics were a key factor in the Czech Republic’s thus far poor tobacco control record (it only ratified the treaty this month, becoming country #176 to do it) – a prelude perhaps to what will happen as the companies expand into less-developed countries. The approach here was particularly sophisticated in the way the companies, for example, lobbied for the taxes that would be most beneficial to them.
But don’t take our word: the documents are freely available and compelling reading, telling as they do the story in the tobacco companies’ own words – from the most trivial to the most official.