Corporate Killers- The Ethics of Selling Tobacco

by padraigcolman


This article was published in the 15 January 2014 edition of Ceylon Today.Colman's Column3

A man who was working for us complained of severe leg pains. We arranged for our GP to examine him. Our doctor concluded that blocked arteries were the cause of the pain and referred the man to a cardio-vascular specialist in Colombo. The specialist agreed with the diagnosis and said that amputation might be necessary. Smoking was the root cause of the problem. I once worked with a man who lost his right leg because of smoking. The English comedian and chain smoker Arthur Askey’s dancing days ended when he had both legs amputated.

The Cigarette Century

One of the best books I have ever read is The Cigarette Century by Allen M Brandt. The Cigarette Century demonstrates how one ephemeral and useless product, which people have to force themselves to like, came to play such a dominant role. The book inspired an engrossing movie in 1999. The Insider starred Russell Crowe and Al Pacino, and focused on that part of the book dealing with revelations by tobacco executive Jeff Wigand that the industry deliberately worked on increasing the addictiveness of their product. Moreover, industry leaders lied to Congress about it.

Selling Death

Advertising linked cigarettes with modern notions of glamour and style. Look at those cool jazzmen wreathed in smoke in Herman Leonard’s iconic photographs. It is hard to find a photo of Humphrey Bogart or Lauren Bacall without a cigarette. The reality is that their breath and clothes must have smelt awful. Bogart’s real life smoking habit led to oesophageal cancer. After surgery failed, Bogart endured a few very painful months before he passed away at the age of 57 on January 14, 1957. He weighed only 80 pounds.

Big Tobacco deliberately used scientific disinformation in its campaign to deny the harms of smoking.  The industry said, “Doubt is our product.” For a long time, there was no real doubt that tobacco was lethal. According to The Lancet, lung cancer killed about 1·5 million people in 2010. An estimated 100 million people died of smoking-related diseases in the 20th century

Recruiting Victims

Killing ones loyal customers is a bizarre business plan. The tobacco industry has to be inventive to survive. Consumption has fallen dramatically in the US and other western nations. Big Tobacco needs to find new victims. In the early 90s, I was working as a management consultant in the NHS when Health Secretary Kenneth Clarke was introducing his “reforms” which were aimed at introducing the market into health care. After he lost office, Clarke was paid GBP 100,000 a year by BAT (British American Tobacco) to sell cigarettes to the Vietnamese. Thanks to the efforts of salesmen like Clarke, more people around the globe smoke cigarettes than ever before.  As a result, world  is poised for an unprecedented pandemic of tobacco-related disease.

Emphysema and Athletes

Those selling a product that causes emphysema and amputated limbs had some Gall Face and Brass Neck to associate it with athleticism and healthy pursuits. Bans on advertising, promotion and sponsorship (TAPS) reduce tobacco consumption, but bans only work if they are comprehensive. Tobacco companies use BTL (Below- the- line) marketing tactics In ASEAN countries through CSR (Corporate Social Responsibility) activities, product placement in movies, dance parties, promotion girls distributing samples and music festivals.

In 2013, the theme of the World No Tobacco Day was ‘Ban tobacco advertising, promotion and sponsorship’. The tobacco companies spend ten billion rupees annually for advertising. Sri Lanka’s Health Ministry said cigarette and tobacco use could be reduced by 15 percent by preventing the advertising of tobacco products.

Corporate Social Responsibility

Tobacco companies get around advertising bans by buying up advertorial space in business magazines and using it to boast about their achievements without mentioning the horrendous effects of the actual product. In 2009, CTC (Ceylon Tobacco Company) claimed it was a key source of revenue to the Government of Sri Lanka contributing a total of 52.4 billion rupees, 7.6 percent of the country’s total tax revenue, approximately 2.2 percent of the GDP. Dr Thalatha Liyanage, Director of the Non-Communicable Disease Unit (NCD) of the Health Ministry, said people are being deceived by the propaganda activities of the tobacco companies. Dr Liyanage pointed out that although the government earns 12 percent of its income annually from tobacco, that is easily outweighed by the costs of treating  people diseased by tobacco usage.

This is the claim in CTC’s Annual Report: “CTC adopts a responsible and responsive position with regard to tobacco regulation. For well over a decade CTC has adopted a Voluntary Code of Conduct, a self-structured framework that confines and regulates its operations within the ambit of responsible corporate behaviour – ceasing product advertising in all mainstream media, branding and sponsorship of sporting events. … we have and will continue to engage and maintain a dialogue in support of conducive and pragmatic regulations. It is in this spirit that CTC has actively partnered with law enforcement authorities of the Government of Sri Lanka to overcome actions and activities outside of the regulatory sphere including illicit product control”

Lobbying in the EU

Former aides of Fine Gael (the governing party in Ireland) are working as public relations advisers to the tobacco industry. Television sport presenter and PR adviser Bill O’Herlihy is an adviser to the Irish Tobacco Manufacturers’ Advisory Committee (ITMAC). Kevin Gilna was senior adviser to John Bruton when he was prime minister and later was EU ambassador to Washington. Mr Gilna’s company, Transatlantic Public Affairs, provides services for Philip Morris International, the world’s biggest tobacco company. In the UK, Transatlantic worked on a campaign to defeat the last Labour government’s plan to introduce a point-of-sale ban on tobacco products. As with CTC, what European tobacco firms mean by co-operating with government on regulation is stopping illegal suppliers taking their business.

BAT has seven full-time lobbyists in Brussels. The tobacco industry as a whole reportedly employs around 100 lobbyists in Brussels, spending more than five million Euros (US $6.6 million) a year. Those numbers have grown as the industry fought proposed new regulation. These lobbyists have been successful in getting legislation watered down. They claim they  are selling legal products and therefore have a role to play in communicating their point of view to people who make decisions that affect them.


The industry is currently trying to foist a new product. Electronic cigarettes, or e-cigarettes, are battery-powered devices that provide doses of nicotine and other additives to the user in an aerosol. I recall that in the mid 70s they tried a non-tobacco cigarette. It did not succeed because it was like smoking the floor sweepings of a carpenter’s shop. Before that, they tried to fool the consumer with filters. How were they able to market filters as a safety innovation when they were adamant that all cigarettes were safe?

E-cigarettes may be as dangerous as low-tar cigarettes because of the delusion that they are safe. The easy availability of e-cigarettes could encourage people to start smoking. Manufacturers of e-cigarettes say the products have the potential to save millions of lives while anti-smoking campaigners say tobacco companies are tricking young people especially into taking up smoking. The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported that the percentage of middle and high school students who used e-cigarettes had more than doubled between 2011 and 2012 in the USA, and one in five middle school children who reported using e-cigarettes had never smoked conventional cigarettes.

In August, a French organization called ‘60 Million Consumers’ published a report, which claimed that e-cigarettes were potentially carcinogenic. The content of formaldehyde was as much as the levels found in some conventional cigarettes. Scientists found traces of acrolein and acetaldehyde, both potentially toxic.

Deaths in Sri Lanka

Approximately 20,000 people die each month in Sri Lanka as a direct result of smoking.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                          On World No Tobacco Day on May 31 2013, Health Minister Maithripala Sirisena said that patients suffering from tobacco and alcohol related diseases occupied 20 percent of hospital beds in Sri Lanka. The Ministry says over 72 percent of illnesses in Sri Lanka are Non- Communicable Diseases  – diabetes, high blood pressure, cancer, stroke  –  to which tobacco and alcohol contribute.

Visions  of the Future

LMD’s Sri Lankan of the Year for 2013 was Susantha Ratnayake, who was quoted as saying:investors and shareholders alike are more focused on sustainable development and social conscience, which compel corporates and their leaders to ‘do business right.’” Mr Ratnayake is the Chairman of the Ceylon Tobacco Company. In its annual Report CTC boasts about “The confidence to go forward, the vision to see where opportunity lies, the strength to deliver on our promise…these are the qualities that make us who we are.”

According to the vision of the WHO, in the next 100 years, we can expect tobacco to cause one billion deaths worldwide.