Between Legislation And Lobbying: The Tobacco Industry’s Shadow Over Health Policies — David Chang & Dr Sean Thum

There is growing global interference by the tobacco industry in policymaking, leading to setbacks for health departments attempting to pass laws regulating e-cigarettes.

After a tumultuous journey involving presentations and retractions, the Ministry of Health reintroduced a new version of the Control of Smoking Products for Public Health Bill 2023 on November 28, 2023.

Despite retaining the name of its ill-fated predecessor, this revised bill notably omits the provision “banning those born after 2007 from smoking and owning tobacco products”. This effectively spells the end of the generational end game (GEG) smoking ban. 

Simultaneously, the new coalition government in New Zealand delivered an unexpected policy reversal by announcing plans to repeal smoke-free laws, including the prohibition on cigarettes for those born after 2009.

Citing concerns about fostering a black market for tobacco products, this move results in the abandonment of the previously proposed “smoke-free generation” policy. 

These parallel actions have sparked speculation about covert manoeuvres by tobacco companies. According to the New Zealand Medical Journal, the government of New Zealand had intended to implement standardised tobacco packaging (devoid of brand logos and featuring health warnings) in 2012.

However, tobacco companies have accused the government of infringing on investment interests and intellectual property, threatening legal action in international courts. This interference caused a significant three-year delay in the government’s implementation of standardised tobacco packaging. 

Further shedding light on the covert strategies employed by tobacco companies, research published in the Journal of Public Health Research and Practice exposes their strategic “tobacco lobbying” with the Australian government.

This involves the use of ‘in-house’ employees, lobbyists from external firms acting on their behalf, and third-party allies with shared interests.

Nearly half of the internal tobacco company lobbyists identified in the study had previously held positions in the Australian government, ranging from Members of Parliament to senior advisors.

The World Health Organization (WHO) recently launched the Stop the Lies campaign, targeting the tobacco industry’s interference in health policies. This initiative is grounded in the data from the Global Tobacco Industry Interference Index 2023 report.

This global survey assesses the influence of the tobacco industry on countries’ public health policies, based on the WHO Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (FCTC) specifications.

The report ranks countries according to total scores provided by civil society groups, with lower scores indicating less overall interference.

Noteworthy findings include Brunei, New Zealand, France, the Netherlands, and Botswana being the least affected, while the Dominican Republic, Switzerland, Japan, Indonesia, and Georgia face the highest levels of interference. Malaysia ranks 13th from the bottom among the surveyed countries.

The report unveils growing global interference by the tobacco industry in policymaking, leading to setbacks for health departments attempting to pass laws regulating e-cigarettes.

Instances such as Uruguay lifting a ban on e-cigarettes in 2021, with disclosed industry influence, and the Philippines passing pro-tobacco e-cigarette laws in 2022 exemplify the challenges faced by health authorities.

Moreover, the tobacco industry’s adept use of corporate social responsibility activities to influence senior government officials is highlighted.

Activities such as contributing to Covid-19 relief funds, organising cigarette butt clean-up initiatives, and planting trees serve as strategies to improve the industry’s image and increase exposure.

Governments, however, can take countermeasures to curb tobacco industry interference. Ceasing participation in industry-sponsored charitable activities, rejecting political donations, reducing incentives, and increasing tobacco taxes are potential strategies.

Policymakers gaining awareness about the harmful impacts of tobacco and vaping on health, including the increased risks of cancer and e-cigarette or vaping associated lung injury, can be beneficial for all concerned too. 

As the saying goes, the higher the goal, the greater the challenge. Malaysia’s detachment of the GEG smoking ban from the bill contradicts recommendations from the Parliamentary Special Select Committtee on Health and the Malaysian Council for Tobacco Control.

Additionally, New Zealand is currently facing the dark prospect of having to scrap the country’s world-leading law, emphasising the arduous path toward achieving a generation smoking ban.

In the face of these challenges, we extend our best wishes to our friends in the United Kingdom.

  • This is the personal opinion of the writer or publication and does not necessarily represent the views of CodeBlue.

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