Tobacco Industry and its Tryst with Death

After denying for the last fifty years that tobacco is either addictive or harmful, tobacco companies are now trying to negotiate their future with the US Government. They have agreed to pay up to $300 billion over the next 20 years provided they are given total immunity against future damages in US and outside. Obviously, the US tobacco companies and the US Government both feel that US laws supersede all international laws. And if this is not enough, the cynical nature of these negotiations are that if the US government is paid off for the damage inflicted on US citizens, it should satisfy all victims — in US or elsewhere — and the tobacco companies can continue with business as usual. Three hundred billion may seem like big bucks, except for the huge profits king tobacco earns. After the negotiations became public, tobacco shares rose in the US stock market.

The $48 billion tobacco industry in US consisting of RJ Reynolds, Philip Morris, etc., are huge MNCs with extensive interests abroad. They have been particularly cosy with the US Government, who have threatened countries with action under 301 and Super 301 if they sought to restrain tobacco companies in any way — even restraints that the consumers in US have been asking for. The tobacco companies have denied that their products are either harmful or addictive. James Morgan, the President of Philip Morris in a sworn statement recently has said that tobacco is no more addictive than candy. Andrew Schindler, president of R.J. Reynolds claimed, again in a sworn statement that tobacco is about as addictive as carrots. From this, to seeking future immunity against all damages while disgorging $300 billion is quite a retreat. It also lays bare the future strategy of the cigarette companies. Expand in the third world where damage suits rarely win and limit damages in US where legal losses can be heavy. Third World lives after all do not matter — either in US or even in their own countries. Witness what our Supreme Court did to Bhopal victims — settling for a sum that was well within Carbide’s insurance cover.

Why is the tobacco industry coming for negotiations now when they have strenuously denied that their products are anything but fun? The answer lies in the broad coalition of forces that are now coming up against tobacco. It is no longer possible to manipulate a few influential law makers in the US Senate, buy influence in Washington and stave off  all dangers of either legislation or regulation. Recently released secret documents talk of  calling in the tobacco backers in Senate — Jesse Helms being one of them — to prevent action in Washington. The Presidency has generally been accommodative of the industry, till the rising protest against tobacco makes it expedient to gain public support by attacking the tobacco industry. Both Tony Blair in UK and Clinton in US are now taking an anti tobacco stand, even though it is more token than real.

The spate of law suits in US brought by individuals, generally lost as the tobacco companies argued that they have warned the consumers of the dangers of tobacco. Even after this, if the people want to smoke it is not the problem of the companies. Though the tobacco companies did lose one case last year, where they were asked to pay $750,000 as damages, their defence has pretty much held through. Even in the Florida case recently, the Judge’s instructions to the jury made an adverse verdict against tobacco pretty much impossible.

There are two recent legal developments that have set alarm bells ringing in the tobacco industry. One is the recent ruling of a Federal Judge in New Carolina  that the Federal Drug Authority can regulate tobacco as a drug. The other is that 22 State Attorney Generals have joined together to file claims against the tobacco companies on behalf of the states. Their argument is that it is finally the Medicare and Medicaid programs that are run by the state that incur huge losses due to tobacco inflicted diseases, therefore the industry should pay up these costs.

The first, may at first sight seem innocuous. If tobacco content is regulated, so what, the innocent may ask. The answer lies in the way cigarettes have been pushed world wide. Some of the more damning facts, well known in anti tobacco circles but assiduously denied by the industry, is that the nicotine content in cigarettes can be brought down to very low levels so that cigarettes are non-addictive. In such a case, leaving smoking which is so difficult, would become simple. The tobacco industry is fully aware that once nicotine content is brought down, the tobacco industry’s policy of “hook them young and keep them forever” is all but finished.

In one of the developments this year, one of the smaller tobacco companies. Ligett, agreed to co-operate with the state. Though it is one of the smaller players — having only a mere 2% of the market in US — its turning virtually state’s witness sent shock waves. It made available secret documents of how the tobacco industry has targeted the young, and suppressed the possibility of lower nicotine cigarettes as addiction was its key weapon for higher profits. The industry even laced cigarettes with various chemicals to enhance the nicotine “kick”. One of such enhances is ammonia, which the tobacco industry calls an “impact booster” for its ability to enhance the delivery of nicotine to the smoker. In another memo from Liggett, the company considered using synthetic ingredients to increase the addictive quality of smoking, “without the severe toxicity of nicotine itself.”

The Ligett documents also show systematic targeting of youth — there are a large number of documents discussing “more appeal to youth” , “to appeal to young adult women” ,”16-21 — the formative years”, and so on. Obviously, tobacco has never been a habit that kids pick up under peer pressure. There is the tremendous pressure of advertising — all sports events are sponsored by cigarette companies, the stars on screen smoke (incidentally here to documents now show that the industry used to pay movie stars to do so) and after all you feel the affect only when you are very old. For the youth, old age is out of their conceptual space. Once addicted, tobacco is life long, the cigarette companies make it so with their nicotine “cocktail”. Therefore the importance of catching them young;  even a single smoke free generation will kill the tobacco companies. A convert at 16 is then a cigarette consumer for ever. As the smoker marches towards emphysema, lung cancer and heart attacks, the cash registers of the cigarette companies go on ringing.

 The tobacco companies shenanigans did not stop here. After years of denying cigarettes were harmful and sponsoring research to show this, they fought a rear guard battle on the effects of second hand smoking. Recent documents brought out by Washington Post show that tobacco giant Philip Morris systematically wooed scientists who might help the company counter the growing consensus on the health risks of second-hand tobacco smoke and “keep the controversy alive”. The British American Tobacco Company memo, obtained by The Washington Post, laid out in great detail Philip Morris’s presentation at a February 1988 conference of its global strategy for dealing with environmental tobacco smoke. The company was “spending vast sums of money” to find scientists amenable to its cause and funding research by them, the memo said.

There is yet no world wide coalition against tobacco companies. If one looks at their record, they are responsible for deaths, disease and ill health on an unprecedented scale. Yet if we want to control them, forget banning their products, we run counter to WTO and the post GATT regime. Trade is sacrosanct and American companies even more so. People are expendable, unless of of course they are smokers. Then we can talk of smokers rights. The danger to third world is that as the West becomes more organised against tobacco, the tobacco giants will shift more to the Third World. That BAT wants to take over ITC in India is no accident. It is their long term hedge against crumbling tobacco defences in the West. Marx described capital, as dripping of blood at every pore. Their is no better example than tobacco, battening as it does on death and disease of vast numbers of people.