Simon Chapman: When will the tobacco industry apologise for its galactic harms?

simon_chapmanLast week, four US tobacco companies finally reached agreement with the US Department of Justice to fund large scale corrective advertising about five areas of tobacco control. Each advertisement will include the statement that the companies “deliberately deceived the American public.”

The case against the companies commenced in 1999 and saw a 2006 judgment by US District Court Judge Gladys Kessler that the companies had mislead the public across decades. Judge Kessler’s orders came in a judgment in a US Department of Justice lawsuit alleging that the companies had violated the Racketeer Influence and Corrupt Organizations Act (RICO), an anti-racketeering statute. The companies dragged out the case for nearly 15 years. Further appeals are now possible on the wording of the correctives that they will be required to pay for. These will appear in newspapers and on prime time television for a year.

Since the public release of some 80 million pages of previously internal and often highly explicit documents after the 1998 Master Settlement Agreement, the conventional wisdom has been that the tobacco industry was forced to publicly drink gallons of truth serum. Because of the revelations in the documents, it was thought that it could no longer engage in its standard denials of health effects and addiction, and would be scrupulous in hiding its intense interest in how to ensure as many  children as possible were beguiled by smoking. Unctuous, weasel-worded statements followed the Settlement on company websites that smokers should be aware that medical scientists had found smoking to be a serious health hazard. Earnest requests intensified to be allowed to be seen as “stakeholders” in public health efforts. Watch us reduce the harms from smoking through product innovation, they promised, as they had for decades previously.

But as snakes shed their skins only to replace them with more of the same, the global tobacco industry continues its business as usual. A friend teaching in Myanmar emailed me last week describing sales promotion staff for foreign brands openly handing out free cigarettes to children. Indonesia, the world’s fourth largest nation, where smoking by men is almost compulsory and tobacco control policies almost non-existent, is a transnational tobacco industry paradise wallpapered with tobacco advertising by BAT, Philip Morris, and local companies. The industry says ad nauseam that it supports “effective” tobacco control, while continuing to lobby—as if its economic life depended on it—against any law or policy like plain packaging that threatens its bottom line.

Tobacco companies are widely regarded as corporate pariahs whose conduct over many decades has set the ethical bottom feeder benchmark. If you Google “just like the tobacco industry”, thousands of examples cascade down the screen of writers reaching for the tobacco industry as a way of calibrating the deceitful, duplicitous, irresponsible venality of a large variety of industries.  It is not difficult to explain why such a reputation is so deserved.

The obvious starting point is its peerless record in sending its best customers to early graves: one hundred million last century, and a forecast one billion this century. But as I wrote this week, Stalin’s observation that “one death is a tragedy, a million deaths is a statistic” tends to inure many from the realities of the suffering that precedes many of these early deaths.

My wife is a primary school teacher with 35 years experience. She has often described incidents where 5-9 year olds with poorly developed moral compasses have been caught red-handed bullying, stealing, cheating, or lying, but unblinkingly deny it regardless of the evidence in front of them.  More than once, she’s suggested that such a child might one day make an ideal applicant for a job in a tobacco company.

Globally, different legal, moral, and religious codes tend to share basic principles when it comes to how to deal with those who have done serious wrong. Sentencing often takes note of evidence of contrition, and civilized societies and judiciaries tend look for five broad pre-conditions in considering punishment:”

  • Full public acknowledgement of the misdeeds and harms caused
  • Apologising for these harms
  • Promising never to repeat them
  • Making good the damage done, and
  • Undertaking some form of public penance to symbolise your changed moral status.

Like many caught-out 5 year olds and recidivist adult sociopaths, the tobacco industry has done none of these things. Its corrective advertising is being done reluctantly after 15 years of legal kicking and screaming, while schmoozing with the global corporate social responsibility movement, publicising its donations to carefully selected charities but just getting on with trying to sell as much tobacco as possible, regardless of the misery it causes.

They have all the ethics of a cash register.

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Competing interests: I have read and understood the BMJ Group policy on declaration of interests and have no relevant interests to declare.

Simon Chapman AO PhD FASSA is professor of public health at the University of Sydney and for 17 years was deputy editor and editor of the BMJ’s Tobacco Control.