You don't need to be signed in to read BMJ Blogs, but you can register here to receive updates about other BMJ products and services via our site.

Archive for January, 2015

Tobacco industry confronted with child labour

27 Jan, 15 | by Marita Hefler, News Editor

 

By Laura Graen, www.forchangemakers.com

In late 2014, the tobacco industry was confronted with the revelation of child labour on US tobacco farms, detailed in a well-researched 139 page report published by Human Rights Watch (HRW). The USA is not alone; most major tobacco producing countries use child labour in tobacco growing. In other words, almost no cigarette can be guaranteed to be free from child labour

The US Department of Labor lists 17 countries which use child and forced labour in tobacco and bidi production. Although extensive, the list is incomplete – for example, the United States itself is not included. Prior to the 2014 report about US tobacco farms, research reports on Kazakhstan in 2010 by Human Rights Watch and Malawi in 2009 by Plan Malawi attracted worldwide media coverage.

Despite the known scale of the problem, every time a new report is published tobacco companies react with apparent surprise, and depict the problem as an isolated local rather than global issue, detached from the structural power relations within which the industry operates. In the wake of the HRW report on Kazakhstan, Philip Morris said it was ‘grateful’ that the NGO raised the issue, despite the fact that it sent officers to its contract farms on a regular basis.

The child labour issue is nothing new for the tobacco industry, as can be easily researched with the internal documents database. In 1999, British American Tobacco (BAT) for example showed its awareness of the problem when one of its representatives discussed how it could best ‘get value for [its] cash and time contribution’ to the International Tobacco Growers’ Association (ITGA). “I would in particular very much like them to delve more into the child labour and WHO issues…Otherwise what is the point of having the membership and paying the money?” wrote Shabanji Opukah, BAT’s corporate social responsibility manager. Sixteen years later, little appears to have been done to find and implement sustainable solutions to improve tobacco workers’ lives.

On December 10th, 2014, tobacco companies through their Eliminating Child Labour in Tobacco Growing (ECLT) foundation announced a pledge to end child labour in their supply chains. In particular, they announced a commitment to adhere to international labour laws and children’s rights’ conventions that prohibit hazardous work for children under 18 – commitments that have already been signed by most countries.

Reuters published an article that boils down to HRW praise of the pledge as a ‘first time’ thing, lending legitimacy to the move and tobacco industry as a whole, although it noted that significant gaps remain and some key players such as China National Tobacco Corporation and Reynolds Tobacco are not ECLT members. At the end of December, a New York Times editorial also discussed the issue. While putting an emphasis on the need for the US government to pass a law that prohibits the work of children under 18 in tobacco, it praises the tobacco industry. Among others, the article says: “Given Big Tobacco’s shameful history of marketing cigarettes to children, it is noteworthy that the industry is willing to do the right thing in the case of child workers.”

While any move to improve its business practices is welcome, given its history, it seems the tobacco industry is more focused on doing the right thing for its public image than safeguarding the rights of child workers. The industry is particularly keen to embrace voluntary agreements which provide good public relations, while being unenforceable. With articles like the New York Times editorial, big tobacco succeeds in being seen as part of the solution rather than the problem. This obscures the fact that tobacco industry is extremely monopolised, has a record of collusion and suppression of leaf prices, interferes with policy development and invests in NGOs such as ITGA, ECLT and many others in tobacco growing countries, in order to be seen as a good corporate citizen.

For many farming households in developing countries, tobacco production is a precarious livelihood, overshadowed by debt and the threat of poverty. If smallholder farmers – who produce much of the world’s tobacco leaf – do not receive enough money in exchange for their tobacco, they have little choice but to enlist their children to work. Human Rights Watch, in its otherwise well-researched report, fails to analyse the structures and power relations of the global leaf market, and the role of tobacco industry financing in encouraging the expansion of tobacco cultivation.

Lay people, and unfortunately also development professionals, may believe that voluntary industry pledges are a shortcut to improving human rights and reducing poverty. Companies seem to react quickly while governments take longer to develop, debate, pass and implement laws. However, examining the history of tobacco industry pledges regarding child labour, little has changed in the past 16 years. To achieve sustainable human rights improvements, properly-enforced laws that make corporations accountable and change power relations between workers and companies are needed, rather than voluntary industry codes.

It is noteworthy that the industry found it necessary to pledge to abide by national and international laws. Do they really deserve congratulations for trying not to break the law?

American Red Cross: tobacco funding risks global brand

20 Jan, 15 | by Marita Hefler, News Editor

The American Red Cross is under increasing pressure to refuse tobacco industry donations, to bring it into line with guidelines of the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies and most of the 189 national affiliates. Accepting tobacco funding is in clear breach of the first of the seven Fundamental Principles of the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement – Humanity, which includes the statement: “[the Movement’s] purpose is to protect life and health and to ensure respect for the human being”.

The principles and rules for Red Cross and Red Crescent Humanitarian Assistance (principles 7.5 and 7.6) state in regard to relations with the external actors: “National Societies and the International Federation shall enter into partnerships with private sector actors that…have a positive image, and a track record of good ethical behaviour” and “…shall not accept donations from sources which risk the image or reputation of any component of the Movement”. On both counts, the association with Altria Group fails.

The value of partnering with the Red Cross is clearly outlined on the International Red Cross website, which includes among the benefits to corporations: demonstration of corporate social responsibility and “that consumers – both current and potential – have a more positive image of a company that supports a cause they care about.” The American Red Cross website recognises Altria Group on the webpage of its Annual Disaster Giving Program (ADGP), which notes that “…ADGP members are valued Red Cross donors. They receive a high level of recognition and access to Red Cross information and leadership.” About Altria Group, it says: “Altria and its companies…have a long-standing relationship with the American Red Cross; we share a tradition of providing support to people and communities in times of need”. The millions who have lost family members to smoking, hooked by Marlboro’s seductive advertising while they were kids, may disagree.

A spokeswoman for the American Red Cross Laura Howe, was quoted in a Reuters report of the issue that the organisation was “happy to accept any funds that support its efforts to assist disaster victims.” The double standards implicit in the statement is striking, given the annual death toll from tobacco products in the USA is over 400,000 – far in excess of any other natural or human-caused disaster. By way of comparison, Altria Group donated US$1 million to assist with Hurricane Sandy relief efforts, for which the US death toll was 117.

While the American Red Cross won’t engage in cause marketing or imply an endorsement of a tobacco product, the value of the association to Altria Group is as clear as would be the case if the Red Cross allowed its logo to be merged with the Marlboro logo.

Read more:

Obituaries: Vale tobacco control leaders Nigel Gray and Anthony (Tony) Hedley

12 Jan, 15 | by Marita Hefler, News Editor

The international tobacco control community lost two of its leading figures in late 2014: Dr Nigel Gray (Australia) and Professor Tony Hedley (UK/Hong Kong). Both made an enormous contribution to public health through a combination of robust scientific evidence and persuasive advocacy. 

Nigel Gray, 12 September 1928-20 December 2014
A decade after the WHO Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (FCTC) entered into force, it is hard to imagine tobacco advertising bans, confronting anti smoking advertisements and sustained global tobacco control policy action were once nothing more than radical ideas. Dr Nigel Gray, who died on 20 December 2014, was a pioneer in turning these ideas into reality, against fierce resistance from the powerful tobacco industry.

Dr Gray was pivotal in the campaign for the Victorian Tobacco Act 1987, groundbreaking legislation in the Australian state of Victoria which banned outdoor advertising of tobacco products and established the Victorian Health Promotion Foundation (now VicHealth) from hypothecated tobacco taxes. The VicHealth model has since been adopted elsewhere in Australia and internationally.

He was instrumental in introducing forceful anti smoking advertisements, health warnings and the establishment of behavioural research to inform tobacco control campaigns, as well as a generous mentor to many leading figures in international tobacco control and public health advocacy. According to former CEO of the Cancer Council Victoria, and past President of the UICC, Professor David Hill, “His commitment to research and action, his extraordinary mix of establishment persona and radical thinker and his ability to bring out the best in those working with him has created a blueprint for creating change that will be used for many decades to come.”

Internationally, Dr Gray was a leader in developing comprehensive policy approaches to tobacco control with the Union for International Cancer Control (UICC, of which he was president from 1990-1994), the World Health Organization (WHO) and other international health groups. In a tribute statement, WHO stated: “To those of us who worked closely with him, we saw a role model and mentor who was always humble, approachable, and never acted as if he was above anybody else even though he was light years ahead of us in his global vision.”

His legacy will continue to be felt in the global tobacco control movement, through the personal influence he had on many tobacco control leaders, as well as the two awards established in his name: the Nigel Gray medal (for outstanding leadership in tobacco control) and the Nigel Gray Distinguished Fellow in Cancer Prevention.

Read more:

Paying tribute to Dr Nigel Gray, a pioneer of global tobacco control

Cancer Council Victoria statement

Cancer Council Victoria – leave a tribute

The Age – obituary

Anthony Johnson Hedley, 8 April 1941-19 December 2014
Tribute by David Simpson, International Agency on Tobacco and Health

Professor Anthony (Tony) Hedley mentored, recruited and led for many years the team of researchers who laid the scientific foundation for tobacco control in Hong Kong, including epidemiology of harm from active and second hand smoke and research on tobacco promotion, taxation, economics, and smoking cessation.

After medical training and successive appointments in the UK, including as Professor of Public Health in Glasgow, Tony became Chair Professor of Community Medicine at Hong Kong University (HKU) in 1988. He recalled feeling that this was where he now wanted to be, no doubt appreciating the potential of a then relatively small department in a renowned medical school in such a unique, dynamic city state. From the outset, he was aware of Hong Kong’s exemplar role and responsibility to the rest of the region.

In little more than 25 years the department of around half a dozen became the School of Public Health, with some 300 staff, working on a wide variety of research and teaching. Tony inspired and led pioneering work on air quality, a major public health issue in Hong Kong (he is commemorated in the Hedley Environmental Index) and health service research, in addition to tobacco-related research and advocacy. The most striking feature of his tobacco publications is their relevance to policy. A study of non-smoking catering workers, for example, clearly showed an inverse exposure-response relationship between lung function and workplace SHS levels quantified by both indoor fine particulate concentrations and urinary cotinine levels. It also demonstrated that a 30-month exemption of some premises from smoke-free legislation in 2006 was directly responsible for impairment of workers’ health, providing powerful ammunition against pressure to relax the legislation.

While the Hong Kong Council on Smoking and Health, which Tony chaired from 1997 to 2002, handled ongoing public information work, Tony insisted that he and his colleagues were also directly involved in advocacy, educating government officials, politicians, the media and the public. An astute industry watcher, he was the first to blow the whistle on some of the most notorious industry scientific frauds regarding misinformation about SHS, revealed in part by detailed involvement in air quality research.

After official retirement in 2012, having accumulated numerous honours, Tony returned to the UK with his wife Sarah McGhee. Last December, HKU’s Public Health Forum 2014 was entitled The Role of the Generalist in Public Health – a Tribute to Professor Anthony J Hedley. Already in failing health from a rare form of pancreatic cancer, he nevertheless made the return journey to Hong Kong thanks to help from friends and colleagues, attending and contributing to every session (see here for highlights). He said afterwards how fortunate he felt to receive such special recognition of his career. Hong Kong, Asia and the world are highly fortunate to have benefitted from Tony Hedley’s life and work.

Read more:

Anthony Hedley was a true hero of community health

South China Morning Post tribute to Anthony Hedley

TC blog homepage

TC Blog

Analysis and debate of the latest tobacco control research findings and policy developments. Visit site



Creative Comms logo

Latest from Tobacco Control

Latest from Tobacco Control