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USA: Anti-Tobacco Activists Add Video to Arsenal Before Framework Talks

by Jim LobeInter Press Service
September 27th, 2000

WASHINGTON -- Anti-tobacco activists have added a new weapon to their arsenal in advance of next month's negotiations in Geneva for a global Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (FCTC).

A new documentary film, 'Making a Killing,' is being released here and in 29 other countries, including some of the top markets for big tobacco in the Third World such as Malaysia, Nigeria, the Philippines, South Africa, and Vietnam. It was produced by INFACT, a US-based grassroots group famous for its boycott campaign against corporate giant Nestle products to protest the Swiss company's aggressive marketing of infant formula in poor countries in the late 1970s and early 1980s.

The film documents US-based Philip Morris' efforts to promote its tobacco products in developing countries while improving its public image in the United States. The company's image has been tarred by a series of extremely costly court judgements and exposes about its alleged complicity in cigarette-smuggling operations designed to evade hefty government taxes overseas.

Philip Morris, famous for its 'Marlboro Man' logo, is the world's biggest tobacco company and has been particularly successful in capturing fast-growing foreign markets, particularly in Eastern Europe and Asia.

''This (film) reveals the gap between the tobacco giants PR (public relations) in the US and its practices overseas,'' according to INFACT director Kathryn Mulvey.

The film's release comes 10 days before delegates from around the world begin working in Geneva at World Health Organisation (WHO) headquarters on the proposed Framework Convention. WHO director- general Gro Harlem Brundtland, who launched the initiative last year, hopes that the FCTC could be submitted to the World Health Assembly for adoption within two years.

Its purpose would be to set international rules governing the global use, promotion, and marketing of tobacco products. Anti- tobacco activists are calling for a binding and enforceable treaty that will ban all advertising, marketing, promotion and sponsorship of tobacco products. They also oppose any direct participation by the major tobacco companies in the negotiations.

''An industry that makes and sells addictive, deadly goods, must not be allowed to shape public health policy,'' says John Garrison, head of the American Lung Association (ALA), a prominent lobby group with a century-long record of opposing Big Tobacco.

The WHO estimates that roughly 1.1 billion people around the world smoke tobacco. It has referred to the practice as a ''global epidemic'' whose annual death toll is likely to rise from about 4 million today to some 10 million people by the 2020s.

The two biggest US tobacco companies, Philip Morris and RJR Nabisco, which together account for about 20 percent of global production, have seen their sales in the United States stagnate or even decline over the past two decades as the public has become more informed about the dangers posed by tobacco use. As a result, sales overseas, which now account for about 75 percent of Philip Morris' total production, has become ever-more important to their bottom lines.

This is dramatised in the INFACT film which documents Philip Morris' marketing tactics in Eastern Europe and Southeast Asia, in particular. While the company insists that it has turned over a new leaf in the United States by, among other things, officially recognising the link between smoking and lung cancer and running ad campaigns which warn children against smoking, its efforts abroad, especially in developing countries, are as aggressive as ever.

In the countries of the former Soviet Union and elsewhere, for example, Philip Morris has used advertising and marketing tactics that would not be allowed in the United States. Much of the advertising, which was not permitted on television or radio in Soviet times, is directed primarily at children.

Since Philip Morris began advertising in the Czech Republic, smoking by minors has increased by some 40 percent, according to a Czech physician with the National Institute of Health in Prague, who also charged that an entire section of the country's tobacco- control legislation was written by advertising agencies working for Philip Morris after the company took key lawmakers on a trip to Switzerland.

After Malaysia banned cigarette advertising, the company launched clothing stores called the ''Marlboro Adventure'' whose apparent purpose was to ensure that the public display of the "Marlboro Man'' logo would continue.

The Marlboro cowboy, who was described by its creator as ''the right image to capture the youth market's fancy (and) a perfect symbol of independence and individualistic rebellion,'' has become ubiquitous in most of East Asia.

In Vietnam, another major bridgehead for Philip Morris, the company also faced a ban on media ads for cigarettes. So it created ''walking ads,'' teenaged girls and boys'' who offered free ''samples'' to others on the streets - a practice filmed by INFACT as recently as last April. Vietnam's legislature has since outlawed ''sampling,'' according to the group.

Similar tactics are being used in Nigeria, according to Akinbode Oluwafemi of that country's Environmental Rights Action. ''Radio and TV stations (are being) taken over by cigarette ads,'' he told an audience at a Capitol Hill showing of the video Wednesday. ''They take samples from village to village, '' he said, adding that Washington should ''investigate these activities.''

But the US government's attitude appears ambivalent at best. On the one hand, the administration of President Bill Clinton has been tough on tobacco companies, particularly in curbing their efforts to market cigarettes to children here. On the other hand, its position on the upcoming FCTC negotiations has disappointed many activists.

Unlike anti-tobacco hawks like Canada, Britain, Singapore, Thailand and even Brazil, which is a major tobacco producer, Washington so far has indicated only that it supports a convention that can be ratified by the US Senate where senators from tobacco- producing states are likely to oppose any treaty with real teeth.

Moreover, its current support for a controversial export-subsidy bill that would give US tobacco companies some 100 million dollars in tax breaks on products they sell abroad has fuelled outrage among many groups. The bill, part of a much larger package of export subsidies, was rammed through the House of Representatives last month and will now be taken up by the Senate where anti- tobacco forces will try to strip it of the tobacco provision.

''It's a moral outrage,'' said Sen. Paul Wellstone, a staunch foe of Big Tobacco. ''It gives a subsidy to a death product.''

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