Every year on May 31, the world stops and reflects on the millions who have lost their lives to tobacco use and the one billion others who are set to lose their lives to tobacco this century, if current trends are not reversed. Tobacco remains the largest preventable cause of death in the world.
Every year it kills more people than AIDS, malaria and Tuberculosis (TB) combined. On average, smokers die 15 years earlier than non-smokers.
Tobacco use is set to become the leading cause of death in low and middle income countries by 2030. This vice causes 15 cancers, particularly lung cancer, and is the only common denominator in the non communicable diseases (NCD) epidemic which involves diabetes, heart and respiratory diseases.
This year, the World Health Organization (WHO) has selected tobacco industry interference in tobacco control efforts as the theme of the World No Tobacco Day.
The tobacco industry has been defined as ‘those persons and companies engaged in the growth, preparation for sale, shipment, advertisement, and distribution of tobacco and tobacco-related products’.
The leading tobacco companies in the world include Phillip Morris, British American Tobacco (BAT) and Japan Tobacco International. In Uganda, British American Tobacco Uganda (BATU) and Mastermind are the leading ones.
The tobacco industry is one of the most lucrative in the world. The Tobacco Atlas last year estimated that revenues from the global tobacco industry were likely to reach half a trillion US dollars, a year. Many tobacco companies are actually wealthier than many developing countries.
“The tobacco industry has historically employed a multitude of tactics to shape and influence tobacco control policy. It has used its economic power, lobbying and marketing machinery, and manipulation of the media to discredit scientific research and influence governments in order to propagate the sale and distribution of its deadly product. Furthermore, the tobacco industry continues to inject large philanthropic contributions into social programmes worldwide to create a positive public image under the guise of corporate social responsibility,” reads a WHO statement.
Because of the economic muscle tobacco companies wield, they hold sway over poor African governments and frustrate national efforts to cut tobacco deaths.
“The entry point for the tobacco industry in Uganda is the overly hyped economic importance of the industry in government tax revenue and tobacco farmers’ livelihoods,” says Dr Sheila Ndyanabangi, the Tobacco Control focal person in the ministry of Health.
But the disease burden and the costs of treating tobacco-related diseases far outweigh the reported economic importance and are not worth any life. The Centre for Tobacco Control in Africa (CTCA), a regional project funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, is pioneering alternatives to tobacco farming through pilot projects in the tobacco-growing districts of Arua and Kanungu.
According to information from Uganda Tobacco or Health Forum, the tobacco industry reportedly put Uganda government under pressure not to increase excise duty on cigarettes in the 2008/2009 national budget, yet globally, taxes on tobacco products are said to be one of the most effective deterrents to tobacco use.
Tobacco companies all over the world are known to frustrate national anti-tobacco legislation through instituting stalling lawsuits and sustained media campaigns against proposed legislation.
John Amanya, Deputy Executive Secretary of the Uganda National Tobacco Control Association, observes that in Uganda we have already seen the tobacco industry sponsor press articles to try and punch holes in the proposed tobacco control bill which had its first reading before Parliament recently.
Despite the ban on tobacco advertising in Uganda, tobacco companies still stealthily advertise under the guise of corporate social responsibility sponsorships or indirect advertising, such as glossy job adverts in the print media.
Jackie Tumwine, a tobacco control advocate, recalls that despite the law banning tobacco advertising and promotion, BATU sponsored and chaired the Commonwealth Business Forum in 2007.
“The global tobacco industry kills six million people every year. It does this in a deliberate, systematic manner, complete with business plans, lobbying, political contributions and favours, and cash bonuses to its executives who kill the most people by successfully selling them their deadly cigarettes and other tobacco products,’’ says Dr Thomas Glynn of the American Cancer Society.