Thanks to our colleagues from The Network for Consumer Protection, Pakistan who provided the information and video in this post. (www.thenetwork.org.pk)
This video shows children in northwest Pakistan preparing tobacco leaves to be sent for drying. Children as young as five years old also work in tobacco farming, where they are vulnerable to poisoning from pesticides and other tobacco sicknesses.
The province of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KPK) is the main tobacco growing region of Pakistan. This video was filmed in July 2012 in Sawabi district, where 50% of KPK’s crop is cultivated. With low economic development, few employment opportunities and a literacy rate of around 36%, tobacco is a major cash crop and tobacco farming is usually a family business.
Pakistan Tobacco Company (a subsidiary of British American Tobacco) and Philip Morris Pakistan Limited both source tobacco from these areas.
The exact number of children working in tobacco is not available, but the high poverty levels mean that children working in tobacco farming is a common sight in this area. It is an issue that receives scant attention from the government and media. Tobacco is considered a major source of revenue for the Pakistan government.
Although the government has a tobacco control cell, it also owns the Pakistan Tobacco Board which is responsible for tobacco promotion – resulting in toothless enforcement. It has been accused of not taking tobacco control seriously by farmers who say they do not want to grow tobacco, but feel they are forced to do so by poverty and government inaction to help them move to alternative crops.
On April 7 this year, a 29 year old man died unnecessarily. Not due to smoking cigarettes, but from consuming alcohol shots at an illegal event sponsored by Phillip Morris Fortune Tobacco Company in The Philippines. His sister Catherine Maralit has started an online petition to bring those responsible to account.
“Last April 7, my brother died at an event illegally sponsored by Phillip Morris Tobacco Corporation. He was 29 years old.
The game Phillip Morris played with my brother’s life was this: they encouraged people to drink as many liquor shots as possible in 100 seconds. There was no medic on standby.
A police investigation into my brother’s death says that it “was caused by lapses and negligence in the party of the organisers as evident in the aftermath of the event”. Yet the people responsible for his death are still employed, no criminal charges have been laid, and Philip Morris continue to engage in illegal promotional activities.
I miss my brother every day. His widow will give birth to their first baby in a few months time, and I can’t believe that he won’t be there with us to celebrate.”
The use of trade agreements by tobacco companies to undermine tobacco control was a key topic at the World Conference on Tobacco or Health in Singapore in March this year, and trade agreements are one of the weapons the tobacco industry is counting on to fight plain packaging. To ensure public health is given higher priority than free trade, an Austrian tobacco control advocate has started an online petition aimed at the World Trade Organization to demand that tobacco be excluded from free trade agreements. Read more and sign the petition here.
This morning Australia’s High Court dismissed the plain tobacco packaging case brought against the Australian government by the world’s largest tobacco companies. The companies had challenged the government’s new law – due to be fully implemented from December 1 this year.
Reasons for the decision will be published soon. But it is thought that the Court may have released its decision in advance of the detailed reasons because this Friday, British American Tobacco Australasia is due in another court on a related matter. That involves the company’s efforts to obtain documents dating back to the Keating government (1991-1996) under freedom of information laws. The High Court may have considered that the company’s interest in these documents might now be judged a fool’s errand and are giving it a chance to reconsider.
Like the mortally wounded Black Knight fighting on in Monty Python and the Holy Grail, Big Tobacco will now be hoping that, despite losing its right arm and buckets of blood (just flesh wounds), two other cases will see off the scourge of plain packs against all the odds.
For all Big Tobacco’s bluster and its success in whistling up sternly worded submissions from a variety of US-based trade associations, it is telling that these three puppets are the heaviest hitters it could convince to run its case with the WTO. China, the United States and Indonesia are all big tobacco manufacturers with major strategic ties to Australia.
But Indonesia and the United States are two countries conspicuous among basket-case nations (such as Somalia, Zimbabwe and Malawi) absent from the 175 countries that are party to the WHO Framework Convention on Tobacco Control. They might have been expected to complain about the precedent that Australia has set. But instead, Big Tobacco’s best team are global minnows. Specialists in global trade law give the challenges little prospect of success.
A third case is being brought by Philip Morris Asia (based in Hong Kong) via a bilateral trade agreement between Australia and Hong Kong signed in 1993. The timeline of this case is fascinating.
On April 29, 2010, the Australian government announced its intention to introduce plain packaging. At the time Philip Morris tobacco products in Australia were manufactured by Philip Morris Australia. On 23 February 2011, Philip Morris Asia purchased Philip Morris Australia and on 27 June, 2011 – a full 14 months after knowing the government intended to introduce plain packs – Philip Morris Asia served its notice of claim to the Australian government.
Imagine someone considering purchasing a property and learning 14 months before the sale that the property would be badly affected by a new freeway being built nearby. Then imagine them going ahead and purchasing the property and then taking the government to court for compensation over damage to their investment. Philip Morris Asia’s case would seem to have the same prospects, quite apart from all the arguments against the idea that a trade treaty should be able to override any government’s sovereignty in public health matters.
What to expect
So what can we expect locally from Big Tobacco? First, we will see dramatic price falls in the retail price of tobacco. Many will think “these [famous name brand] cigarettes are costing me $3 to $4 a pack more than cheap unknown brands in exactly the same packaging except for the small brand name. They taste pretty much the same as cheap brands, so why should I pay out all the extra?”
Tobacco companies today chase the “value market” because they know that total sales volume is steady and the margins on high-end brands is where they profit most. A leaked BATA internal staff development DVD from 2001 explains how the company then needed to sell five packs of budget brands to get the same profit from one premium brand pack. Plain packaging strips the industry of this vital source of revenue while gutting its ability to distract smokers from thinking about what they are buying.
Australia is a tiny market for Big Tobacco, and it may well be willing to treat us in the way as when supermarkets place drastically reduced “loss leader” items on special to get customers into the store. The industry will be so desperate to demonstrate to watching nations that plain packs “don’t work” that it might even be prepared to wear local losses for a year or so.
But the Australian government can simply raise tobacco tax overnight as often as it needs to effectively maintain a floor price for cigarettes that will deter smokers from buying more than they could have afforded previously.
Second, stand by for lots of “independent” reports by tame academics from obscure universities or corporate consultancies, purporting to demonstrate that the new packaging has not affected smoking. The rhetoric will oxygenate ignorant community assumptions that plain packaging was somehow going to dramatically cut smoking across the community overnight. The reality of the historical fall in smoking over the last 40 years is that annual declines have been fractions of 1%, driven by the combined effects of all policies and programs.
Plain packaging may amplify this downward trend, but no one expects it to dramatically increase it among adults who consume 98.2% of all tobacco sold. The main goal of plain packaging has always been to deglamourise smoking among children.
The last significant vestiges of local tobacco advertising ended in 1992. So anyone aged 20 today, has grown up never exposed to domestic tobacco advertising. Today’s smoking rates by youth are the lowest ever recorded. Plain packaging is designed to turbo-charge that decline and make smoking history for future generations. Quick and dirty Big Tobacco surveys months after its introduction will never capture that effect.
Simon Chapman does not work for, consult to, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has no relevant affiliations.