CHENNAI: Several decades of anti-smoking regulations have produced a skew in the global map of smoking. Last year, the United Kingdom (UK) reported an all-time low in the number of smokers. But India has had a 36 per cent increase in the number of smokers since 1998.
Such an imbalance, studies have found, is a direct result of tobacco companies turning to developing and less developed countries to shore up their sales.
As per a World Health Organization (WHO) report, “Nearly 80% of the more than 1 billion smokers worldwide live in low and middle-income countries.”
Tobacco companies take advantage of laxer regulations in these countries and boost growth through the application of various traditional and non-traditional marketing strategies.
A 2009-2012 study by WHO on 16 countries of varied income levels showed that the mean number of tobacco outlets per community increased as income levels dropped in each country. For instance, high-income countries had 1.7 outlets per community, in contrast with 3.4 in upper-middle-income countries and over 5.0 in lower-middle and low-income countries.
Similarly, the number of tobacco advertisements was observed to be higher in lower-middle and low income countries. For example, high-income countries had less than one advertisement per community whereas urban areas of low-income countries had more than four advertisements per community.
Big Tobacco – the five largest tobacco companies in the world – also take advantage of the lax tax system in developing countries at a time when it has been proven than higher tobacco taxes and prices reduce consumption and promote quitting.
According to a publication by the WHO, “Cigarettes have become more affordable in China, India, Indonesia and Vietnam. In these countries, price and taxes have either remained unchanged, or the relatively modest increases were more than compensated by relatively higher income growth.” India raised the excise duty on cigarettes by 6 per cent in 2017. However, tax on cigarettes remains less than 50 per cent against the WHO recommended tax rate of 75 per cent.
According to Scielo, a bulletin by WHO, big tobacco companies use tactics like intimidation, bribery, smuggling, international treaties and so on to defend their economic interests.
In an investigation conducted by the BBC’s Panorama programme, British American Tobacco (BAT) lobbyist Julie Adell-Owino was found to have bribed three public officials in Rwanda, Burundi and Comoros Islands, all countries that are signatories to the United Nations’ Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (FCTC).