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24 September 2012

The evils of big tobacco companies

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By Tariq A. Al-Maeena

The region is awash with statistics indicating that smoking and tobacco consumption in the GCC is on an unprecedented rise. This leads to long-term health issues costing governments extraordinary amounts of money towards the care of those afflicted with smoking-related diseases. In the United States alone, that figure came to a whopping $193 billion loss to the economy — an amount directly related to smoking-caused illnesses and lost productivity.

In China, a reliable 2011 report by Chinese health experts estimated that 3.5 million Chinese would die annually because of smoking-related disease within the next 15 to 20 years. One can imagine the additional effect on the growth and productivity of the world’s second largest economy as more and more people are struck down by debilitating diseases caused by smoking.

But the developed world is fighting back. In most countries, public smoking is banned. Taxes on the sale of cigarettes and other tobacco related products are high, and labeling on cigarette packs is often very graphic and clear: Smoking kills! From the United States to Australia, governments are clamping down on tobacco companies with regulations to throttle consumption and it seems to be working.

And so, tobacco companies have to seek other markets. The Middle East is fertile ground as anti-smoking legislation is weak at best, and a fast growing birthrate means a higher number of potential smokers. As a result, big tobacco companies quickly established regional headquarters for the GCC market in the UAE and set to work.

A source describes how this industry manages to weave a web in the promotion of its product. He describes how one of the largest US tobacco manufacturers whose regional office is manned by Arab nationals in the UAE reaches out to area officials to lessen any impact on tobacco sales.

The Foreign Corrupt Practices Act of 1977, a US Federal Statute, made it a federal crime for US companies to engage in commerce using bribery or corrupt business practices. Because of such limitations, this UAE company resorts to covert methods of getting officials on their side. This is also the general practice by the offices of the other tobacco companies in the region, as I am told.

One method they use is to farm out their operatives to identify key players in ministries such as finance, commerce, and health who may be helpful to their cause. Once the key players are identified, then begins a deluge of offers that can be too hard to resist. Although cash is rarely on the table, an all-expense-paid junket to Switzerland to visit the company’s facilities in Lausanne and Geneva, along with an additional week-long holiday can be an attractive lure. The trip is first class all the way and for the whole family.

Others are invited in a similar travel arrangement to Bahrain to witness the Formula 1 races or to Lebanon for a week-long break in an all-expense-paid vacation at the best resorts. Again, the whole family is welcome, and they all travel first class. 

And the invitations do not all necessarily come from the tobacco company alone. Major stockholders with interests worldwide are encouraged to invite these key players within our ministries to their respective countries for fun-filled days. One can imagine the flow of gratitude following such carefree holidays. To complement the bliss of this bounty, a bonus bag full of quality pens, watches and other glittering paraphernalia is often presented to snare the potential victims to their cause. While it is bribery in the true sense of the word, it can always be dismissed as a gift.

Perhaps it is such sympathetic individuals who defer government anti-smoking legislation from being strictly followed or do not clamor for heavy taxation on the sale of tobacco products. Instead, they call for a price increase on tobacco products, an increase that only helps fill the coffers of the big tobacco companies and paves the way for future fun-filled holidays.

In a region where a rising youth population is targeted by tobacco companies and some unethical officials have placed the interests of tobacco profiteers ahead of the interest of public health, it is time to fight back. Those individuals who have shown sympathy towards the tobacco industry must be ferreted out of the government. 

Governments must slap heavy taxes on cigarettes to pay for the ever-increasing cost of healthcare for smoke-related diseases. The taxes should also fund countrywide anti-smoking educational campaigns. The activities and books of the regional offices of tobacco companies must be routinely audited by independent professionals and reports must be submitted to GCC governments.

Tariq A. Al-Maeena
As one GCC health official stated, “If we look at the magnitude of this problem and its detrimental effects on health, society and economy, the rapidly growing number of smokers of different ages who squander their money on smoking and the increasing rate of diseases caused by smoking, we will realize that it is important for all civil organizations to join forces to combat tobacco.”

Let us all work in making this peninsula a smoke-free zone. It is the least we can do for the generations to come.

[The author can be reached at talmaeena@aol.com.]

(Courtesy: Saudi Gazette)

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