Health officials want to bar tobacco speakers at forums

The tobacco industry’s interests are irreconcilable with those of public health policy and, therefore, the industry should not participate in discussions on health, concluded a group of tobacco control experts meeting to examine the industry’s tactics for lobbying in the Americas.

On World No Tobacco Day the Pan American Health Organization called on national leaders to be extra vigilant against increasingly aggressive attacks by the industry intended to undermine tobacco control policies.

Tobacco control experts explored the tactics that the tobacco industry is using in Latin America and the Caribbean, and in the United States, and their similarities with those of the alcohol industry.

Jon Andrus, deputy director of the health organization, called on the countries “to protect public health from tobacco industry interference.” He noted that when it comes to measures to combat the tobacco epidemic, “there is one very powerful industry that is not happy.”

“It should come as no surprise to encounter a tobacco industry that continues to undermine our public health attempts to save lives,” said Andrus. “There is an irreconcilable conflict between the tobacco industry’s interests and the interests of sound public health policy. So it becomes even more important to stand our ground in this critically important area of work, saving more lives more rapidly with good public health policy.”

“We have enough evidence to know that the industry should have no place at forums where health issues are being discussed,” said Adriana Blanco, the agency’s regional advisor on tobacco control.

Stella Aguinaga-Bialous explained some of the tactics that the tobacco industry has used in Latin America and the Caribbean. The efforts have intensified since the 2005 entry into force of the World Health Organization Framework Convention on Tobacco Control. In addition to litigation in national courts, she described the industry’s investments in social causes to improve its public image, secret meetings with government officials or political leaders to discuss the terms of tobacco control litigation, and the use of third parties, such as services associations and anti-tax citizens groups, to espouse its interests.

Matthew L. Myers, president of the Tobacco-Free Kids Campaign, offered some examples of this interference in the United States, which includes litigation in state courts arguing that restrictions on tobacco advertising violate the First Amendment right to freedom of expression. “This shows the industry’s willingness to invoke the First Amendment in areas where it has never been used before,” he warned.

He also drew attention to the offensive being waged in commercial courts “designed to challenge government tobacco control policies,” as well as the offensives that have been unleashed in several states that are attempting to tax tobacco products. “Public health interests and those of the tobacco industry are irreconcilable,” affirmed Myers.

For his part, David H. Jernigan, associate professor at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, pointed out that the alcohol industry has learned a lot from the tobacco industry, particularly in using corporate social responsibility, looking for evidence-based arguments, and seeking out associations with the public health sector to defend its products. He noted that they are placing their bets on global expansion.

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