Big Tobacco and the Hound of Hell

Published on
December 6, 2012

I remember the first time I saw the Indonesian “smoking baby” on YouTube

Barely two years old, the addicted baby took an expert puff, then shrieked and waved his chubby arms frantically when the cigarette was taken away from him. Snatching it back, he closed his eyes in unmistakable bliss as the adults around him dissolved in howls of laughter.

It was an epiphany of sorts, a stunning glimpse into tobacco companies’ global reach. The industry may not be the commercial presence in the United States that it used to be, but cigarette makers are still among the most profitable companies in the world. Poor nations and emerging markets now fuel Big Tobacco’s global sales, worth an estimated $300 billion in 2008 for just the top five international companies. Of the 176 million people destined to die of lung cancer and tobacco-related illnesses between 2005 and 2030, an estimated 77 percent are cigarette consumers and second-hand smokers in developing nations

Big Tobacco’s lobbying and marketing campaigns in developing countries occupied more than a year of my work at the non-profit International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, which has long chronicled Big Tobacco’s role in the evolution of global cigarette smuggling. ICIJ, with support from the Bloomberg School of Public Health at Johns Hopkins University, assembled a team of eight investigative reporters to examine relationships between the industry and government officials in Russia, Uruguay, Mexico, India and Indonesia -- countries that were selected because of their emerging consumer class and importance to the tobacco industry.

We found that the tobacco industry continues to rely on tactics that resemble those deployed during controversial, secret meetings held by officials of Phillip Morris, British American Tobacco and Japan Tobacco International between 1999 and 2000. The secret talks were dubbed “Project Cerberus” after the three-headed hound that, in Greek mythology, protected the gates of Hell. Medical journals, including the American Journal of Public Health, reported that companies quickly stopped the talks after anti-tobacco researchers disclosed the strategy to WHO officials, who at the time were crafting the first international health treaty on tobacco which would be signed by 171 countries by 2011.

What was served up in the Project Cerberus meetings? As the American Journal of Public Health reported, it was a wide-ranging strategy to undermine tobacco control, including suggestions that industry officials and advocates offer up experts who could help government regulators write tobacco control rules. The strategy also included industry promises to self-regulate smoking and advertising to children -- ostensibly to help governments avoid costly regulatory programs. The tobacco lobby also provided research showing how regulations interfere with free trade and crimp individual freedoms.  As medical journals and the World Health Organization pointed out, the goals included deceiving the public with sponsored science on tobacco and delaying tobacco control with lawsuits.

The industry’s attempted subversion of the global health treaty was so egregious that the  WHO included language in the pact to bar the industry from talks on tobacco controls in individual nations.

But, as the ICIJ revealed in a 2010 report called “Smoke Screen: Big Tobacco’s Global Lobbying,” those restrictions have had little effect.

In Mexico, for example, we documented a history of influence over tobacco regulation by the industry – including private meetings between the nation’s president and its wealthiest citizen, Carlos Slim Helu.  Slim’s early fortune was made from owning Mexico’s leading domestic cigarette companies and then selling them to Phillip Morris.

After promising to crack down on the industry, Mexican legislators allowed a number of legislative compromises that weakened existing tobacco controls. One clause that the industry succeeding in adding said that while public universities would go smoke-free, the schools would nonetheless be required to build smoking facilities. Restaurants would have smoking bans but could get help from the industry in building smoking terraces and patios.

In India, public health measures have been delayed or watered-down by legislators said to be wary of challenging the nation’s powerful Bidi Kings – billionaire merchants who employ millions of poor Indian women and children in rolling tobacco in dried tendu leaves. (Bidis, by far, are India’s preferred smokes.)

And in Indonesia, where the video of the two-year-old smoker made headlines, we chronicled the close relationship between government regulators and the tobacco industry. Indonesia’s richest family is the Sampoerna clan, which sold the nation’s largest tobacco enterprise to Phillip Morris for $5 billion in 2005. The nation’s president is a close ally of the family. In Indonesia today, legislators are still arguing over what’s long been established: tobacco kills. In Indonesia 38 percent of teenagers ages 13-15  have smoked. And Indonesia has yet to sign the international tobacco-control treaty. The smoking baby, by the way, got help from anti-tobacco activists and kicked the addiction.

Tobacco is the one commercial product whose sole health outcome is illness or death. To me, the salient lesson from this investigation was that Big Tobacco is thriving and more than willing to flex its political and social muscle to defend its markets around the globe. Its power was underscored by a seminar topic at the WHO’s most recent global assembly: “Building Global Solidarity to Counter the Tobacco Industry’s Attacks.”

For foreign correspondents or freelance reporters who want to chronicle Big Tobacco’s trail of addiction and disease in developing countries, here are some lessons we found valuable: 

* Be on the lookout for marketing campaigns banned or shunned in the United States. These include advertising near schools, sponsorship of school sports teams, music festivals and rock concerts, sales of candy cigarettes, and clothing with cigarette company logos.

* Look for tobacco products aimed at women and marketed in the shape of perfume bottles, lipstick or candy.

* Contact the WHO or national health agencies for statistics on lung cancer and other smoking-related ills, and explore the Center for Disease Control and Prevention’s database of global smoking and tobacco statistics.

* Talk with the country’s university scientists studying the health impact of smoking and non-smoking policies and government agencies that collect taxes from tobacco companies and regulate them.

* Find out whether your country has a lobbyist registration act that requires lobbyists to report whenever they contact an elected official about a given issue. These registries may even be available on the internet.  

* Investigate the funding for so-called consumer groups that support “property rights” or personal freedom in issues such as second-hand smoke -- they are often industry front groups whose tobacco industry funding is mentioned in annual reports but not in general media sources.

* Visit tobacco companies operating in the country and examine industry trade publications and tobacco companies’ annual reports, press releases and 10-K filings on the Internet.

* Talk with tobacco growers’ associations, trade unions and chambers of commerce involved in the tobacco supply chain. The International Tobacco Growers Association, for example, started as an idea by cigarette company marketing and political strategists.

* Look for relevant documents in the Legacy Tobacco Documents Library -- an easy-to-use and searchable database of 13 million pages of tobacco industry documetns -- which continues to yield once-secret memos and reports.

*  Develop sources at smoking control organizations such as Tobacco-Free Kids, the Bloomberg Initiative and Corporate Accountability International PR Watch and global ASH -- Action on Smoking and Health, all of whom keep close tabs on the tobacco industry globally and who may be able to point you to other important sources in the country you’re reporting from.

Finally, pay attention to billboards. Like the smoking baby video, billboards may reveal more than is intended. As a 2011 billboard from Indonesia says: “Dying is better than leaving a close friend. Sampoerna [tobacco company] is a cool friend.”

-- Ricardo Sandoval, who until recently led international investigative teams at the Center for Public Integrity, helped the ICIJ published Smoke Screen: Big Tobacco’s Global Lobbying,” in 2010. He has worked as an Assistant City Editor at the Sacramento Bee newspaper, and as a foreign correspondent, based in Mexico City, for the Dallas Morning News and Knight Ridder Newspapers. Sandoval’s career has spanned three decades and has included award-winning coverage of California agriculture, immigration, the savings and loan scandal and the deregulation of public utility companies. His awards include those from the Overseas Press Club, the InterAmerican Press Club, the Gerald Loeb prize for business journalism and two honors from the Northern California chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists. With his wife, journalist Susan Ferriss, Sandoval co-authored the biography “The Fight in the Fields: Cesar Chavez and the Farmworkers Movement” published in 1997 by Harcourt Brace. He is currently an investigator at Human Rights Watch.