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Big Tobacco's Plans To Lure New Asian Smokers

by Marwaan Macan-Markar

UN Health Org Fights Back as Tobacco Companies Target Asian Women (1999)

(IPS) BANGKOK -- Finally, the world has a stark picture of the plots hatched by tobacco multinationals to lure Asians to smoke.

The revelations come courtesy of 'Tobacco Control,' a quarterly published by the prestigious 'British Medical Journal.' These previously undisclosed details are expected to turn the heat on the tobacco giants as they seek out more Asian customers to enhance their profits.

"Obstacles to tobacco control in Asia that were once puzzling may now be understood," writes Judith Mackay in the editorial of the latest issue of 'Tobacco Control,' which hit the newsstands this week.

"The industry infiltrated some of the most respected scientific institutions (such as universities), and scientists who argued against the scientific evidence on the damaging effects of tobacco are now known to have been paid to do so," Mackay adds.

What prevailed in the Philippines was typical. An article that describes the work of the tobacco lobby in that Southeast Asian archipelago notes how the tobacco industry's efforts were able to "limit the effectiveness of proposed anti-tobacco legislation."

The industry's success also stood out following its ability to get "a prominent scientist (to) publicly repudiate links between active and passive smoking and disease," the article revealed. "The placement of health warning labels was negotiated to benefit the industry."

In Hong Kong, on the other hand, the tobacco industry had muscled its way into the political establishment in order to "delay the introduction of tobacco control legislation in Hong Kong from at least 1973."

And in Thailand, the tobacco companies sought to stall Bangkok's push to require cigarette packets to disclose all the ingredients contained in each cigarette, states the British journal.

"The Tobacco Products Control Act was identified by transnational tobacco companies (TTCs) not only as a significant threat to their operations in Thailand, but as a dangerous global precedent," it reveals.

"Industry documents reveal a determined campaign to block, stall, or amend the proposed regulation during the legislative process," it adds. "Industry documents also reveal that as submission of ingredient lists appeared unavoidable, leading companies operating in Thailand endeavored to confound the disclosure requirement by disguising ingredients and reformulating brand recipes."

Public health experts are welcoming this week's disclosures, since they offer an unprecedented glimpse of how tobacco multinationals operate in the quest for profits in the developing world.

"This is the first time that the public has been offered such a comprehensive account of what the tobacco companies did in Asia to promote smoking," says Mary Assunta, a research fellow at the Sydney University's school of public health, in an interview.

The British journal's revelations gain in significance because Asia is "an emerging market for tobacco companies," she adds.

Currently there are over an estimated 1.1 billion smokers in the world, and the Chinese almost account for a third of that number. In addition, the World Health Organization has singled out South-east Asia as having the "second highest annual per capita growth rate in tobacco consumption."

Access to the tobacco industry documents was made possible in the wake of a court battle in the United States, in Minnesota, in 1998. In addition to compensation that the tobacco industry had to cough up in the case it lost that year over diseases linked to smoking, it had to disclose "millions of previously confidential tobacco industry documents."

"The documents are a collection of letters, memos, studies, reviews of studies, marketing plans, statements of policy, article reprints and news clippings, on a wide range of topics," writes Mackay. "The documents provide information that is not available from any other source and describe the history of industry activities over the past 50 years."

Among the marketing plans the British journal draws attention to are those conceived by tobacco giants to create a culture in Asia aimed at luring new customers to take up smoking, particularly young women.

Till then, Asian smokers had largely been men, and "cigarettes were of low quality and made by inefficient state owned monopolies which bothered little about advertising and marketing strategies," write Jennifer Knight and Simon Chapman, of Sydney University's school of public health, in 'Tobacco Control.'

"The tobacco industry believed it needed to construct a culture in which, despite tradition and social history, smoking would become desirable or even normalized for young men and women," Knight and Chapman point out.

And the industry achieved this by creating an atmosphere that appropriated "vehicles that included music, entertainment, sport, adventure, fashion, and the emancipation of women and proposing that smoking was an apposite and integral part of these milieu," they add.

The result of this 20-30 year campaign has left a trail of smoke among women in countries such as Japan, South Korean, Malaysia, Thailand, the Philippines and Pacfic Island nations such as Fiji and Papua New Guinea.

According to available reports, smoking among women in Japan hovers around 20 percent, while in Fiji it has reached 31 percent. In Malaysia, say anti-tobacco groups, nearly 17 percent of teenage girls between 12 to 18 years smoke.

"In creating this tobacco culture among the young women of Asia (the tobacco) industry was quite specific in its demographics, with one internal document referring to plans 'to target the emerging young adult female smokers rather than the older female smokers,"' the British journal reveals.

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Albion Monitor November 30, 2004 (

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