WHO denounces interference by tobacco industry

by Gustavo Capdevila

Geneva, 16 Jan 2001 (IPS) -- The tobacco industry exerted ressure in Switzerland throughout recent decades to prevent the pproval of stricter measures against smoking, says a study sponsored y the World Health Organisation (WHO).

The transnationals British American Tobacco (BAT) and Philip Morris, which dominate the Swiss market, were successful in their efforts to control the country’s tobacco-related legislation and policies, says the report.

As a result, Switzerland has the lowest national taxes on cigarettes in all of Western Europe.

The laws regulating tobacco products, advertising and sales are weak and have scant impact on tobacco-industry practices.

In public places and work sites here, there are no protections for non-smokers against the known toxic effects of second-hand smoke.

The study, financed by the WHO, was prepared by Dr Chung-Yol Lee and Dr Stanton A. Glantz, both from the School of Medicine at the University of California, San Francisco.

The WHO is attempting to obtain the endorsement of a framework convention through which its 191 member countries commit themselves to national legislative reforms that limit tobacco consumption.

As part of that campaign, the UN agency ordered a study of the tobacco industry’s influence and tactics to frustrate health authorities’ efforts to prevent smoking.

One conclusion of the research indicates that the industry spent millions of dollars to undermine an epidemiological study of the connection between second-hand smoke and lung cancer.

The WHO, based in Geneva, also conducted country-by-country studies, the first being a report on the situation in Switzerland by the US-based doctors.

Lee and Glantz show that an alliance between the tobacco industry, advertising agencies and the communications media caused the failure of two referendums, held in Switzerland in 1979 and 1993, on banning advertisements for tobacco and alcohol.

The tobacco companies maintain close ties with Swiss officials and politicians and hold regular informational meetings with political party leaders and groups of lawmakers.

Through these contacts, the tobacco industry obtains updated information on the politicians’ plans, which allows the corporations to influence the decision-making process, maintains the report.

More than 10,000 people die each year in Switzerland as a result of tobacco use, a figure that represents one-sixth of all deaths in this country of 7.3 million inhabitants.

Worldwide, according to WHO figures, four million people die annually from tobacco-related causes. The death rate will reach 10 million a year by 2030 if the number of smokers in developing countries continues to expand at its current rate, says the UN agency.

Several officials from the Swiss Health Ministry declared their support for the report’s conclusions. Ueli Locher, assistant director of the ministry, outlined the responsibilities of the executive branch and emphasised that “it is the Parliament that makes laws.”

Locher also reported that the Health Ministry has been the target of systematic attacks by the tobacco industry and its lobbying groups.