Cigarette Companies Mock Tobacco Control Laws in Latin America

  • by Marcela Valente (buenos aires)
  • Thursday, March 07, 2013
  • Inter Press Service

With tobacco product advertisements banned in every country in the region, companies are now targeting points of sale in their efforts to increase product visibility, and implementing corporate social responsibility programmes to maintain brand popularity.

These are among the findings of a recent multi-organisation report that looks at case studies from Mexico, Colombia, Argentina and Brazil documenting civil society's reactions to the tobacco industry's ploys in 2010-2012.

The report, issued in Spanish under the title "Health is non-negotiable; Civil society addresses the tobacco industry's strategies in Latin America", was prepared by the Argentine and Mexican chapters of the Inter-American Heart Foundation (Fundación Interamericana del Corazón, FIC) and Brazil's Alliance for the Control of Tobacco Use (Aliança de Controle do Tabagismo, ACT), among other organisations.

Mariela Alderete, assistant director of FIC Argentina, told IPS that tobacco companies in her country were taking advantage of the lack of regulations necessary to properly enforce the tobacco control law passed in 2011.

"The regulations would help enormously in covering legal gaps regarding, for example, advertising or no smoking areas," she said.

Argentina is the only South American nation that has not yet ratified the World Health Organisation's Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (WHO FCTC), although it was signed by the government in 2003. Pressure from the country's tobacco-growing provinces has delayed ratification, as they argue that the treaty's provisions harm their local economies, despite the fact that they export 80 percent of their tobacco.

The report observes that in the last few years "great strides" have been made in the efforts to curb smoking in the region.

"However, the (tobacco) industry is deploying innovative strategies to reach new publics, violating or circumventing health policies" aimed at preventing tobacco-related diseases and deaths.

In some cases, identical strategies are used, repeating the same arguments that have been effectively refuted again and again by health bodies that call for tobacco control.

These strategies are aimed at preventing the passage or enforcement of anti-tobacco laws, says the study, published in late 2012 but virtually ignored by the media.

According to the report, tobacco companies hide behind "front groups," typically small tobacco-growers, café, restaurant or bar proprietors, convenience store owners and licensed gaming operators, using them to protest these laws by highlighting the negative impacts that smoking limitations allegedly have on their businesses.

They also lobby legislators and other politicians, helping to finance their election campaigns or other initiatives, and they manipulate figures to cast doubt on effective measures for combating the addiction to smoking, such as increasing taxes on tobacco products.

Argentina banned tobacco advertising in 2011, with the exception of points of sale, under the Advertising, Promotion and Consumption of Tobacco Products Act. Last year, the Health Ministry also ordered tobacco companies to display graphic health warnings on their product labels, accompanied by texts such as "Smoking causes cancer" or "Smoking during pregnancy causes irreparable harm to your unborn child".

But according to Alderete, these warnings are being made light of with the sale of cigarette cases that cover packs almost entirely, leaving only the brand visible and displaying a message that says "Lay off" over the mandatory images.

The creation of regulations for implementing the law has been delayed, among other reasons, because of opposition from the National Lottery, the state agency that controls licensed betting offices. These businesses demand that they be allowed to install air purifiers and ventilation systems and that smoking areas be authorised in their establishments.

"This is what the tobacco industry proposes in its Living Together in Harmony programme, but such systems are known to be ineffective and to violate the right to health of workers and non-smokers. The industry is using the National Lottery as a front" to push its agenda, Alderete said.

In Mexico, tobacco companies fought attempts to raise taxes that affect the price paid by consumers, arguing that increasing taxes would only boost cigarette smuggling, based on figures that contradicted government data.

While tobacco companies claimed in the media and through street campaigns that illegal cigarette imports had increased fivefold, official figures cited in the "Health is non-negotiable" report indicate that smuggling has shrunk "significantly" in recent years.

However, the last few years have also seen a rise in the number of shops and other points of sale that sell loose cigarettes and in some cases to minors, despite the law's explicit ban, Erick Ochoa, an expert with FIC Mexico, told IPS.

"It's pointless to ratify the Framework Agreement and have solid legislation if neither instruments are enforced in practice," Ochoa stressed. "Good intentions are not enough. You need commitment from political leaders willing to draft solid regulations and make sure they're enforced."

The industry has also found ways of getting around tobacco control laws in Brazil, which was among the first to ban cigarette ads (in 2000). As the ban does not apply to advertising within points of sale, cigarettes, which were formerly only sold in kiosks, are now sold in bakeries, supermarkets, newsstands and nightclubs.

According to the report, in 2012 the Brazilian branch of the multinational corporation British American Tobacco (BAT) filed a lawsuit against ACT to force it to pull an anti-smoking television spot from the air, but the suit was thrown out of court. Litigation was also the strategy chosen by the tobacco industry in Uruguay, where smoking is banned by law in all indoor public spaces since 2008 and a 2009 decree requires that health warnings cover 80 percent of the front and back of cigarette packs.

U.S.-based tobacco giant Philip Morris took legal action against the government of Uruguay under the Switzerland-Uruguay Bilateral Investment Treaty (BIT) at the World Bank's International Centre for Settlement of Investment Disputes, claiming that the South American country's regulatory measures violated the investment protection agreement signed in 1991 between the two countries.

But the government of the left-wing Frente Amplio coalition is not abandoning its anti-tobacco policy, which began in 2006 under the administration of former president Tabaré Vázquez, an oncologist.

In Colombia, where a full ban on tobacco product advertising and promotion is in force, two claims of unconstitutionality were brought against the ban, arguing that it violates the freedoms of economy and enterprise. But both actions were dismissed.

The tobacco companies operating in the country then focused their strategy on retailers, offering to sponsor activities of the National Federation of Retailers, with events across the country.

This involves financing gatherings of kiosk owners and small shopkeepers and organising contests, discounts, prizes and incentives for the sector. "They even offered university scholarships for their children," Alderete said.

Non-governmental organisations, however, are more concerned with tobacco company sponsorship of campaigns against child labour, artistic and cultural events, or social reinsertion programmes for demobilised combatants (former left-wing guerrillas or far-right paramilitaries) and their families, which are often carried out in partnership with the state.

This funding explains why it is not uncommon to see cigarette-makers praised in the news for their social contributions.

"It's a mockery of the absolute ban (on tobacco advertising), and it's not seen as an advertising strategy," the report says.

© Inter Press Service (2013) — All Rights ReservedOriginal source: Inter Press Service

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