You might think the tobacco industry was in serious trouble. Public health campaigns to reduce smoking have resulted in cutting smoking rates in the U.S. from a peak over 60% in men and 40% in women to the current rate of around 20% (where, incidentally, it’s been stalled for several years). Government intervention has resulted in exposing deceitful practices designed to produce a more addictive product and sell it more effectively. Clean air legislation and workplace smoking bans have made it harder to smoke and tobacco taxes have made it more costly.
Ever nimble on its feet, the tobacco industry responded by emphasizing tobacco sales in other countries – particularly in the developing world, where markets are often unsaturated (for example, because of low smoking rates among women, making them an easy target) and government regulation is often lax. Then, another setback: In 2003, in response to these efforts to globalize the tobacco epidemic, the World Health Organization adopted the Framework Convention on Tobacco Control, which by 2005 had achieved the minimum 40 parties required for it to enter into force and now has 171 parties. (The process is still incomplete in the U.S.; the treaty was signed by President Bush in 2004 but never sent to the Senate for ratification.) The treaty provides for imposition of tighter controls on tobacco ingredients, packaging and marketing, expansion of cessation programs and smoke-free spaces, and increased taxes — measures that have all been shown to be effective in reducing smoking.
But don’t waste too much time feeling sorry for Big Tobacco. An article in today’s New York Times documents industry efforts, in anticipation of an international conference convening tomorrow in Punta del Este, Uruguay to add specific terms to the FCTC, to derail legislation mandating larger or more graphic warning labels by suing countries that pass these measures for loss of revenue. (The real goal here is not to remove health warnings altogether – health warnings have actually worked well for them by legitimizing the claim that if people choose to smoke, it’s not their fault – just to prevent them from dominating the package and actually becoming salient.) Even in the context of a faltering economy, the tobacco industry and its Mad Ave cronies are extremely adept at peddling an addictive product, and they have repeatedly shown themselves to be survivors.
My own concern is that they will attempt to circumvent the FCTC by creating a need for their product by publicizing effects that can be achieved or problems that can be addressed by smoking. It’s already been done at least once: Although I have no proof, it seems likely to me that they not only capitalized on our societal preference for thinness but actually contributed to it, by glorifying stick-thin models and promoting severe anxiety over images suggesting even a small increase in weight. It’s probably not even necessary to provide an overt link to cigarettes. Just as “everyone knows” that smoking is bad for you, “everyone knows” that smoking suppresses body weight. If it worked in the U.S., why not in Africa or Asia or South America?
Cynthia S. Pomerleau, Ph.D., is currently research professor emerita in the University of Michigan Department of Psychiatry. From 1985 to 2009 she served as director of the Nicotine Research Laboratory, where much of her research focused on the impact of smoking on women. She is the author of more than a hundred articles and book chapters on smoking and a contributor to the 2001 Surgeon General’s Report on Women and Smoking.