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Tobacco firms used the fight against HIV/AIDS as a smokescreen to hinder tobacco control efforts in developing countries, researchers have revealed.
“In both Latin America and Sub-Saharan Africa, Philip Morris and British American Tobacco championed the AIDS response in order to delegitimize efforts to develop the World Health Organization’s Framework Convention on Tobacco Control,” says the paper published in the Journal of Social Aspects of HIV/AIDS on 29 March. The convention was eventually adopted in 2003.
“There is a more than half a century of evidence that shows how tobacco companies use indirect means to prevent tobacco control from happening.”
Monique Muggli, Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids
“Transnational tobacco companies aimed to generate competition between the two health issues for resources and policy attention to protect their interests from stronger regulation,” the authors write.
In the 1990s, smoking rates plummeted in the United States and Western Europe as governments implemented measures to control tobacco. In response, tobacco firms “shifted their focus to emerging markets in Asia, Africa, and Latin America, where there were weaker regulations, growing populations, and rising incomes”, says the study.
For example, in 1992 British American Tobacco (BAT) sponsored music concerts and football matches promoting AIDS awareness in Argentina to coincide with the World Conference on Tobacco or Health in Buenos Aires, in a bid to divert attention away from this important meeting.
“Facing the increasing importance [of AIDS] in the world and in Argentina, we believe this disease to be the sole matter [capable] of eclipsing the conference,” wrote a representative of a BAT subsidiary in a strategy document at the time.
The paper also describes how BAT sought to discredit the WHO, saying its targeting of tobacco was misplaced as developing countries had more-pressing health battles.
The authors cite a 1998 document outlining a strategy to “target WHO’s blind spots on key primary health priorities, such as AIDS prevention and malaria”. To do this, tobacco companies funded the International Tobacco Growers’ Alliance (ITGA), an agricultural lobby group that championed the AIDS cause on their behalf.
For example, Philip Morris paid ITGA representatives from Malawi to influence their government. The paper says the Malawi government’s subsequent statement on the Framework Convention on Tobacco Control expressed the belief “that the deaths due to tobacco in Malawi are exaggerated, ignoring more important problems of malaria and HIV/AIDS”.
In the United States in the 1990s, tobacco companies funded lesbian and gay rights organisations and championed their cause during the AIDS epidemic, the paper says. But AIDS organisations began to question the firms’ intentions and to refuse funding, the paper points out.
“I would never criticise organisations that are desperate for funding and do good work, but would encourage charities to look at policies that have been developed by organisations” that fund them or want to do so, says Julia Smith, the paper’s lead author and a researcher at the Global Tobacco Control project at Simon Fraser University in Canada.The paper’s authors uncovered their material from the Truth Tobacco Industry Documents, a collection of 14 million internal corporate documents made public after litigation between US states and tobacco companies.
“There is a more than half a century of evidence that shows how tobacco companies use indirect means to prevent tobacco control from happening,” says Monique Muggli, a lawyer at US charity the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids, who has also researched the once-secret documents.
But in developing countries, including those in Africa, companies are still able to convince policymakers and the public that they are “good corporate citizens”, Muggli adds. Challenging this view “is a matter of effort and time — hopefully not decades”, she says.
BAT, Philip Morris and the ITGA did not respond to SciDev.Net’s requests for comment.