Tobacco industry choking efforts to promote health

THERE’S no government policy that requires disclosure of meetings with the tobacco industry.

THERE’S no government policy that requires disclosure of meetings with the tobacco industry.

Published Nov 19, 2023


Durban — Crooked officials and non-governmental organisations are working in cahoots with the tobacco industry to snuff out efforts to clamp down on the illicit trade of tobacco.

This is according to the South Africa Tobacco Industry Interference Index Report, an annual review of how governments protect public health policies from tobacco industry influence, released this week.

The report revealed that the tobacco industry partnered with NGOs that worked with the government on activities such as food programmes, academic scholarships and contributions for research and events.

The funds for one event and the research were later returned to the tobacco industry by the respective agencies following objections from civil society organisations.

It further found that tobacco industry bosses mingled with government officials at corporate events and through their front groups.

Some senior politicians and the president appeared on social media with industry representatives, reflecting a proximity between high-level politicians and those running the tobacco cartels.

“There is no government policy that requires the disclosure of meetings and/or interactions with the tobacco industry. The government indirectly accepted assistance from the tobacco industry through involvement with front groups. A former judge of South Africa is a member of the council of PMI-IMPACT that oversees the funds for projects against illicit trade,” read the report.

In the latest index, South Africa ranked 64 out of 90 countries, meaning there was greater interference from the industry in public health policies.

The tobacco industry has become more influential and powerful than before, states the report. “It is strongly hoped that the consultative process in approving the new tobacco bill will also serve to revive interest in the ratification of the protocol and implementation of measures that have been proven to reduce the illicit trade in tobacco products”.

Vimla Moodley, the report’s lead author and a public health consultant, said tobacco industry tactics had focused on third-party techniques that the industry had been actively involved in and using in South Africa.

She said they also established think tanks and front groups.

“They use a complex web of allies to represent and promote their interests and agenda. For example, they would promote pro-smoking and anti-tobacco arguments which are made by seemingly independent thirdparty individuals and organisations. The names of allies appear unrelated to the tobacco industry or like they work against the tobacco industry.”

Among the recommendations in the report was the ratification of the Protocol to Eliminate Illicit Trade in Tobacco Products, the finalisation and implementation of a code of conduct for government officials and politicians, as well as to fast-track passing the new Tobacco Products and Electronic Delivery Systems Control Bill (B33-2022) inclusive of a ban on all forms of contribution from the tobacco industry.

Sharon Nyatsanza, deputy director of the National Council Against Smoking and a public health lawyer, said the country moved from 61 in 2021 to 64 in 2023, adding that there had been no action on the recommendations made in the previous report to reduce industry interference.

She said South Africa was experiencing major delays in policy reforms.

“The Tobacco Control Bill that is now before Parliament has been delayed in becoming law. There is no regulation for e-cigarettes so companies have benefited from the delays in policy reform. The tobacco companies continue to partner with organisations which work with the government and this has been a key trend within the report. This is happening mainly in the non-health sectors of government.”

Dr Mary Assunta, head of global research and advocacy at the Global Center for Good Governance in Tobacco Control, said the tobacco index was a government report card and not a report card on the industry, and it was the government’s responsibility to implement Article 5.3.

“Globally, the tobacco industry has intensified its interference in health policy and has undermined and derailed government’s efforts because governments did not take a cohesive approach towards dealing with the industry. We see a worsening trend across the globe, including in Africa.

“South Africa is in the red zone. The South African government has quite a way to go to address tobacco industry interference,” she said.

Health Department spokesperson Foster Mohale said any official working with the tobacco industry against the DOH’s policies was acting against the interests of the employer.

“If there is anyone who has been seen to have acted against his or her employer, the labour law must take its course. If such employees are found to have acted against their employer, and benefited financially from a relationship with the tobacco industry, the appropriate labour law will apply.

“Furthermore, the general laws of the country relating to corruption will apply, including clauses in the current tobacco control laws on sponsorship restrictions,” said Mohale.

Independent on Saturday