The Marlboro people

  • 14/12/1999

Somehow the tobacco industry has been with us for the last three months or so. When Dietrich Schwela, the World Health Organization's (who) urban health expert based in Geneva, came to participate in a workshop organised by the Centre for Science and Environment (cse) on urbanisation and environment, he repeatedly pointed out that the diesel industry is today opposing public health concerns just as the tobacco industry was doing so for more than three decades.

Despite growing scientific evidence that tobacco smoke causes cancer, the industry kept on questioning the findings. And later when evidence started pouring in that nicotine is addictive, they questioned that, too. It now turns out that the tobacco industry was fully aware of these findings and, in fact, it was using them to increase its market. Its marketing strategy was aimed at young people - the Marlboro Man promoted the macho image - and its research was aimed at increasing the addictive effects of the nicotine in the cigarette smoke. All in all, the strategy was to catch them young, get them addicted and then keep them buying the product till they died. Now the cat is out of the bag. And citizens and state governments in the us are going to court demanding an end to advertising aimed at the young and compensation for all the expenditure incurred in treating cases of lung cancer.

During a meeting on internet-based Global Public Policy Networks, organised by the World Bank in Washington, dc, it was felt civil society institutions, governmental and international intergovernmental agencies and business groups could benefit by holding a dialogue amongst themselves and help develop a consensus on global public policies dealing with global public goods - public health and the environment, for instance - the behaviour of the tobacco industry came up again. Several participants had expressed concern about the possible exclusion of people from the developing world in the exercise because of their lack of access to the Internet. Therefore, several participants argued that efforts to set up such global public policy networks must ensure 'inclusion' to the maximum extent possible.

The lone voice demanding the right to exclude came from a representative of who. The organisation is in the process of developing an international treaty to regulate the promotion of cigarette marketing. And it has consciously decided to exclude the tobacco industry from its deliberations. The industry has no moral right left to demand participation after its past behaviour, contended the who official. A rare position for an international bureaucrat to take in a world increasingly dominated by private interests. "If you don't believe me, then go and see the new movie, The Insider ," he said. In fact, the whistleblower, Jeffrey Wigand, former scientist of Brown and Williamson, one of usa's top cigarette manufacturers, is today an important participant in the who negotiations.

We, therefore, decided to go off and see the movie. The movie had a powerful impact on us. After Wigand decided to tell the world about the research he had been asked to undertake which increased the addictive effect of nicotine, and thus contradict the public statement made by the company's ceo to the us Congress, the company did everything to keep him quiet. The company fired him but with a confidentiality agreement that threatened to destroy him financially. With a child suffering from acute asthma, Wigand could not lose his medical insurance cover. When the producer of 60 Minutes , an investigative programme of cbs, discovered Wigand, he had to go through a long, protracted process to get Wigand to agree. Wigand agreed but cbs then faced the threat of violating the confidentiality agreement and facing a major lawsuit.

The tv producer got Wigand to first give testimony in an anti-tobacco court case, a process that lies outside confidentiality agreements. In the resulting tension exacerbated by prowlers stalking Wigand's family, presumably sponsored by the company to frighten him, Wigand's wife decided to leave him. But even after all this, corporate lawyers at cbs stopped the telecast of the programme. They feared that a lawsuit against damages would reduce the stock value of cbs to a point that Brown and Williamson could take it over.

The film reaches a frightening point when the power of money literally seems to take over the power of the media - in fact, the very power of democracy - and leave Wigand and the tv producer high and dry, without any friends and support. Finally, the producer decides to risk his job and leaks the story of how cbs has held up the 60 Minutes telecast to The New York Times . With the cat out of the bag, cbs finally decided to air the programme.

What amazed us is the parallel that the entire story had with the Indian auto giant telco's effort to frighten us in our campaign against diesel with a Rs 100 crore legal notice. The idea clearly was to tell us that by taking up such issues we would run the risk of financial ruin. It appears that in the age of the Internet and globalisation, Indian companies are learning faster from their Western counterparts on how to fight the civil society and the media than how to protect public health and the environment.

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