Meeting of minds

Created only two years ago, the Global Tobacco Networking Forum concept once again proves its value to a rapidly changing industry.

By George Gay

One of the many advantages of attending a TR Global Tobacco Networking Forum (GTNF) is that you come to realize not everybody sees things the way you do. I was reminded of this in October when I attended a GTNF session that discussed the possibility that all ingredients other than tobacco might be banned from the cigarette rod. I had expected most people—with the obvious exceptions of those involved in supplying these ingredients and their associated equipment—to be celebrating, at least from a business point of view. But this was not the case. So in the spirit of discussion engendered by the GTNF, I will use a couple of paragraphs to describe what my reasoning was and wait for your responses.

If those in authority who put themselves forward as being concerned about the health of cigarette smokers force the tobacco industry to remove ingredients other than tobacco from cigarettes, then those cigarettes will appear to the consumer to be somehow improved. For one thing, they will appear to be and, to some extent will be, more “natural.” And given the way the mind works, it’s not a long stretch from “improved” and “natural” to “safer,” and nor is it a long stretch from “safer” to “safe.”

So if the World Health Organization’s Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (FCTC) comes down in favor of removing ingredients other than tobacco from cigarettes, then it will, de facto, be encouraging the introduction of the first official PREPs—though in this case purportedly reduced exposure products. And, in doing so, it will inevitably involve the media and so provide a cigarette marketing push the likes of which will not have been seen before; or it will if you accept the idea that smokers crave reduced-risk products. What’s not to like about that?

But even as I’m writing this I’m starting to see that there’s a small fly in the ointment of my argument. Consumers are going to be torn between these “improved” products and the traditional ones that though no longer available from licit manufacturers will be provided with much alacrity by illicit operators.

Why is it that some people in the tobacco control business are willing to put forward schemes that will do little if anything to reduce tobacco use but everything to improve the competitiveness of the illicit trade—in the case just considered, by wiping out its competition? Tobacco control is clearly something of a misnomer. Apparently, a group of researchers suggested during the Asia Pacific Conference on Tobacco or Health in Sydney recently that governments should reduce the amount of tobacco available for sale by 5 percent each six months—a cast-iron business plan for the illicit trade if ever I heard one.

The illicit trade was another of the subjects much in evidence at the October GTNF held in Bangalore, India. I cannot disclose what went on at the forum because, in a successful effort to encourage open debate, the rules stipulated that what was said during the sessions was not reported. If you want to find out what is said, or if you want to have your say, you have to turn up. And, in any case, I didn’t get to the illicit trade sessions. One problem—if a problem it is—with the GTNF concept is that, with four simultaneous sessions in progress, you have to make some difficult choices. Twenty-four sessions were shoehorned into six four-session time slots spread over two afternoons, with the mornings being reserved for plenary sessions at which the more traditional, formal presentations were made.

The illicit trade needs to be discussed. From outward appearances, combating this trade is such an unmitigated disaster that you have to assume either there is no will to put a stop to it or that some of those involved are incompetent on a hitherto unimagined scale.

Nearly all of the problems and, therefore, the solutions, lie with governments, which often seem completely out of touch with reality. Examples are legion, but I saw a story just this morning that reported the German government as saying it planned to raise tobacco taxes during the next five years to make up for falling tobacco tax revenues as Germans smoked less, opted for cheaper brands or turned to smuggled products. So, if I’m not mistaken, the plan is to charge honest smokers to make up for a shortfall in revenue caused in part by dishonest ones. This sounds like a descent into madness. Already, manufacturers are required under various agreements with governments to dig enormous black holes called “hoping to combat the illicit trade in tobacco” holes, and shovel in smokers’ money. This is neither sensible nor fair.

Could it be that there are too many accountants, lawyers and law-enforcement people looking at the contraband issue and not enough psychologists, sociologists and, dare I suggest it, ordinary people?

In my view, even the tobacco industry does itself few favors in respect of contraband, though at least it has the excuse of having few options; it just has to keep those holes filled. A number of manufacturers have been making the point that only criminals benefit from the illicit trade, a claim that seems to take a wholly unnecessary waltz through the contraband minefield wearing a pair of magnetized boots.

The question that anybody hearing this will ask herself is: Who are the “criminals?” Clearly, they comprise the counterfeiters and those who smuggle and or sell any form of illicit cigarettes. But when you think about those who buy and consume illicit cigarettes, you venture on to tricky ground. Either you fudge the answer by saying that these people aren’t really criminals and, in the process, condone what they do and, in effect, the illicit trade; or you say that they are criminals and admit that they benefit from the trade. Of course, some consumers do so benefit, but do we need to underline this?

There is another difficulty too. If you believe that governments raise taxes so as to take the retail prices of cigarettes beyond the point at which smokers can afford them in an effort to eliminate smoking, then you have to believe that the illicit trade provides the only brake on this policy; so the illicit trade is of indirect benefit to the licit trade, which, by definition, isn’t criminal. And it goes further. Governments, which, technically, are not criminal, benefit too because they don’t really want to see a lot of people quitting tobacco since this would cause their tax revenues to fall; so the illicit trade provides a convenient fig leaf behind which they can hide this embarrassment.

“Watershed”

What is at stake here is the truth, a slippery concept if ever there was one. As somebody once said, truth is probably not a terribly useful concept and can lead to martyrdom. I was reminded of this at the GTNF when—I suppose I shouldn’t report this—on a number of occasions a still was shown from the 1994 video of seven U.S. tobacco executives standing and swearing before the Waxman Hearings that they believed nicotine was not addictive.

This was portrayed as a watershed: the moment when the rest of the industry recognized the ideological error of the soon-to-be-martyred executives and turned to embrace the great truth that nicotine is addictive. But of course it was no such thing. We are still scrapping over whether nicotine is addictive. As I write this piece, there is a court case going on in the U.S. at which the plaintiff’s lawyers say their client was addicted while the tobacco manufacturer being sued says she wasn’t. Interestingly, the tobacco manufacturer claims there is no better proof that she wasn’t addicted than the fact that she hasn’t smoked for 14 years. Isn’t that what those seven executives were getting at?

In fact, the major thing that has been achieved by changing the definition of addiction and moving to a position where those people who have a say in formulating tobacco policies agree that nicotine is addictive, is that smokers now believe they have a cast-iron excuse for not quitting because they pick up on the new addiction label while hanging like limpets to the old definition of that word.

We all hold on to old ideas and, getting back to what I wrote at the beginning of this piece, this is one reason why the GTNF is a product for its time: It provides a forum during which ideas that are no longer useful can be shaken out. And the Bangalore event certainly had some shakers and movers. It attracted, from around the world, more than 200 delegates representing most aspects of the tobacco industry and including a number of representatives of the major manufacturers. And it also ttracted a number of people from outside the industry.

One idea that I believe the industry needs to give an airing, if not a shaking, concerns whether the major tobacco manufacturers are fighting the wrong battles—or not enough battles. The tobacco industry is enormously competitive in the marketplace, and this can be seen reflected in the sorts of areas where the major manufacturers take their stands. They have made it clear through their actions that they are prepared to put up a fight against display bans and, in the future, it will become clear that they will be willing to go to war over plain packaging.

But in my view, there is a danger in tobacco manufacturers aiming so much of their firepower at display bans and plain packs (both of which were discussed at some length at the GTNF) because while display bans and plain packs might be pointless and even, in the case of plain packs, unlawful, their pointlessness means they do not threaten the existence of the tobacco industry.

However, the existence of the industry is threatened by attacks on the integrity of tobacco products and the imposition of smoking bans. To an extent, measures that attack the product are slightly easier to deal with because usually, though not exclusively, they are the product of national or international initiatives; so they present a very visible, large target. On the other hand, smoking bans, which for some time have been moving from public indoor places to public outdoor spaces and private indoor and outdoor places and spaces, are more invidious. They often play leapfrog at a local level, gradually building a momentum that allows tobacco out-of-control people to claim that it is confusing having some places where bans exist and some where they don’t. And you don’t need me to tell you that at this point they don’t lobby for doing away with the bans altogether.

And this is a problem for the tobacco industry. While its big guns are fighting display bans and plain packs at the national level, smokers are being left with nowhere to smoke by local regulations and employer rules, and, in some places, a diminishing number of places to buy licit cigarettes, even assuming they could afford them. There is no point defending the right to display cigarettes to people who cannot afford these products, find a shop to buy them or a place to enjoy them.

The industry needs to mobilize whatever resources it can muster against tobacco smoking bans and in support of product integrity, and generally against untruthful anti-smoking propaganda. This isn’t to say that it shouldn’t continue to work with people in the tobacco control community (let’s call them antibodies, and the out-of-control people busybodies) where such cooperation is possible and is aimed at the good of smokers and not the destruction of the industry. But just as it fights display bans and plain packs while it is working with tobacco control, it should be willing simultaneously to oppose smoking bans and other unnecessary controls.

Call to arms

Appeasement is not the answer. A recent report in New Zealand calls for limits to be placed on the amount of tobacco that is imported, the number of outlets that can stock tobacco products and sales. It calls for tobacco to be sold in plain packaging and for the banning of retail displays and vending machine sales. And it recommends that tobacco companies be forced to fund the purchase of products to help smokers kick the habit.

In France and elsewhere, calls are being made for exceptional taxes to be levied on tobacco company profits. And in Norway there is a proposal to increase to 20 the minimum age at which tobacco can be purchased. And once it is 20, there will be another study to show that it should be 22, and then 24 …. As the none-too-happy married couple once explained, in the end they decided to stay together until their children were dead.

Nevertheless, there is one small candle flame flickering at the end of the tunnel. Last month, a story in The West Australian told how Western Australia’s (WA) tough new anti-smoker laws were not being enforced by councils amid growing concerns about the cost of such enforcement. This is an encouraging sign given that Australia’s economy, and especially the economy of WA, boosted by its mining industry, has been doing well of late. If the people of Australia cannot afford such laws, what about those in countries with less robust economies? As somebody once said, you should never let a good economic crisis go to waste.

The tobacco industry should develop a strategy for exploiting concerns over anti-smoker regulations based on their costs and the assaults that they mount on freedoms. It should develop a strategy based also on pointing out whenever possible the distortions that busybodies pedal on a regular basis and that have been absorbed untested into the general media’s lexicon.

Manufacturers have been successful at mobilizing quickly various parts of the industry against the threat of an ingredients ban; now it needs to do so in respect of public- and private-places smoking bans. But this time it will be harder because it will need to mobilize industry people, cigarette consumers and others. The localized nature of the smoking ban assaults make them just too numerous to be handled any other way. This sounds difficult, and it is, but we shouldn’t throw in the towel. There are groups of people around the world already fighting against bans, including those to do with smoking, but they could do with some support and encouragement.

Every person who works for the tobacco industry, and anybody else who is interested in harmonious co-existence within societies, should be provided with information to counter the distortions trotted out by the busybodies; so they may use that information whenever they comment on website stories, whenever they write letters to the editor, whenever they talk with politicians, whenever they talk with other people. We all need to become much more vociferous ambassadors for the tobacco industry.

But I would make four points here. The first is that we will never present a united front if some within the industry encourage regulation because it is a handy weapon to have aimed at their competitors.

The second is that whatever information we put out must be the truth as best it is known, even at the risk of creating martyrs.

The third, and perhaps the most important, is that the industry needs professional help in dealing with the general media.

And the fourth is that GTNF events could be ideal rallying points for the industry; for the discussion and dissemination of vital information. All that is needed is a little more active participation by those who have the most to lose if the busybodies have their way—and that means all of us.