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Tobacco Firms Likely To Blunt World Pact On Restrictions

by Bob Burton

Big Tobacco Bribes, Undermines World Restrictions
(IPS) CANBERRA -- On the eve of the ratification of a global convention on tobacco control in Geneva, anti-tobacco activists in the Asia-Pacific are already looking beyond that to what they say will be tobacco manufacturers' attempts to blunt the implementation of that accord.

Already, they say, a recently released internal document from Philip Morris Asia reveals how it has stalled the adoption of tobacco control measures by Asian governments.

These revelations come just as the World Health Assembly, comprising the 191 member nations the World Health Organization (WHO), is likely to adopt the Framework Convention on Tobacco Control on Tuesday or Wednesday.

While the convention is almost certain to gain the signatures of the 40 countries to come into force, tobacco control advocates believe the industry will also redouble its efforts to slow its implementation.

"Knowing the tobacco industry, they will probably increase their activity to stall the convention's implementation -- there are a lot of countries such as in the Pacific where the industry is regarded as responsible corporations," said Anne Jones, chief executive officer of Action on Smoking and Health (ASH) Australia.

Evidence of the tobacco industry's stalling tactics in Asia has emerged in a copy of a presentation to a meeting of Philip Morris public relations officials on Oct. 9, 1996. The presentation -- made public earlier this year as a part of the settlement of legal actions in the United States against the major tobacco companies -- outlined their problems.

"In Taiwan, legislation proposing to ban all forms of advertising suddenly moved to the top of the agenda. In Korea, the notion of cigarettes as narcotics has become a new topic of discussion among health and opponent groups and in the media," the presentation noted.

One of the key threats worrying the company was the controversy over the health impact on non-smokers of environmental tobacco smoke or ETS.

"They (Philip Morris) knew that ETS was the Achilles' heel of the tobacco industry. They needed to bring on board all the major companies and attack the issue from an industry point of view rather than an individual company," said Malaysian tobacco control advocate Mary Assunta.

Tobacco control groups argue that since the smoke in places such as offices, hotels and restaurants is concentrated, the only way to prevent damaging health impact was to ban smoking in enclosed locations.

Faced with the "inability to find and establish consistent, ongoing common groups with other companies in the industry," Philip Morris decided to forge ahead and create the Asia Tobacco Council.

The company candidly acknowledges the benefit of masking its handiwork behind the Asia Tobacco Council name.

"The ETS book, although written and worked on entirely by Philip Morris, was issued in the name of the Asia Tobacco Council. As a result, it has been used extensively by the industry in many countries -- which would certainly not have been the case had gone out only under the Philip Morris byline," the memo stated.

Last year, Philip Morris companies sold over 1.11 trillion cigarettes globally and sales in Asia were up by over 3 percent. But its reputation as a huge U.S. company caused it problems.

"Philip Morris as an American company knew that to deal with Asian governments it needed to take on an Asian posture and the Asia Tobacco Council would be an umbrella institution that can give the Asian spin and meet the needs of the Asian governments," Assunta said.

The company also used corporate sponsorship to its political advantage. For the last eight years, Philip Morris International has sponsored the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) Art Awards as well as the Hong Kong and Singapore Arts Festivals. ASEAN is the main diplomatic grouping of 10 Southeast Asian countries.

"The ASEAN Art Awards were initiated to encourage, inspire and reward, and most importantly support, creative works by established and emerging artists within the region," Ellis Woodward, vice president of Philip Morris Asia Ltd, explained in a media release last year.

However, the memorandum attributes more pragmatic reasons as being behind the company's sponsorship of the now biannual awards. The awards, it states, "provides corporate affairs and management with direct access to senior government officials in each country and given us strong relationships at the ASEAN Secretariat."

"You'll hear why this is especially important in a few minutes," the memorandum stated, flagging that a later briefing by Patrick Rekart "will review ASEAN free-trade issues. Patrick heads up a multidisciplined, regional team on this issue."

"It is important to remember that ASEAN is a trading bloc. If you want to tap into the ASEAN market, then it seems ideal that you have a corporate public relations program which is what the award is all about," Assunta said.

While the tobacco control convention is likely to come into force, the next challenge clearing lies in ensuring its implementation.

Two weeks ago, the U.S. government sent out a letter to other governments seeking their support in a last-ditch attempt to renegotiate crucial elements of the convention. However, over the weekend the U.S. government indicated it would now support the adoption of the convention.

While Assunta welcomes the U.S. government's change of heart, she is uncertain as to whether it is the end of the stalling by the governments most responsive to the tobacco industry's lobbying.

"Very, very few governments were actually supportive of the U.S. position, which then isolated the United States so they had no choice really to be seen to be cooperating and adopting the treaty," explained Assunta. "However, just because you adopt a treaty doesn't mean you are going to ratify it."

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Albion Monitor May 19, 2003 (

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