Thursday, June 5, 2008

Tobacco and food

Below is a short summary of a 35 pages report written a few years ago by my friend Norbert Hirschhorn. Thanks for allowing me to post Bert! Read to see how large the tentacles of the corporate world can be.


What does the tobacco industry have to do with food? For one thing, tobacco is an agricultural product, of great economic importance to a number of tobacco-growing countries, including Lebanon. Second, for good or for ill, we take food and tobacco smoke inside our bodies. Thus while the World Health Organization (WHO) wrestles with tobacco’s negative impact on the public’s health, the Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO) defends tobacco as a farm and farmers’ issue. Finally, there are many areas of overlap with food in matters concerning tobacco, both as a crop and as a finished consumer product. These include: pesticide use and residues, genetic modification (GM), flavor and chemical additives, safety of ingredients, dietary guidelines, advertising and marketing, labeling of products, international trademarks, and restraints on trade.

WHO and FAO conduct joint technical committees to set standards and policies for food. These committees rely heavily on advice from outside experts and non-governmental organizations (NGOs). Since all member nations promise to enforce the standards, any undue influence by tobacco and food industries will have an immediate and world-wide impact.

The situation becomes even more complicated since three of the four major multinational tobacco companies – Philip Morris, RJ Reynolds, Japan Tobacco, Inc. – have also been owners of packaged food and beverage industries, such as Kraft/General Foods and Nabisco. Thus the tobacco industry has always been keenly interested in what policies are set by WHO/FAO.

In the year 2000 WHO published a sensational report: “Tobacco Company Strategies to Undermine Tobacco Control Activities at the World Health Organization.” The report drew on thousands of tobacco industry internal documents that had been made public through law suits in the USA against the companies. WHO’s report revealed how the tobacco companies tried to influence WHO policies on tobacco through many ways: secretly positioning their experts and observers on key WHO committees; using tobacco-supported NGOs in official relations with WHO/FAO to lobby for favorable policies; providing inside information from WHO deliberations back to the tobacco companies; and recruiting friendly journalists to write articles attacking WHO and any policies that tried to restrict the tobacco companies’ way of doing business. That investigation led to a second report revealing similar tobacco industry attempts to influence food policies developed by the FAO and WHO that would impact the tobacco business.

This second report, written by me in 2002, revealed how tobacco companies attempted to influence standards and regulation in such matters as pesticides used on tobacco crops; dietary recommendations on how much sugar should be consumed daily; policies on harmful fats favored by the food industry; and genetically modified crops (of keen interest not just to the food industry but also tobacco companies researching how to manipulate nicotine levels and other natural ingredients in tobacco leaf).

Libertarian think-tanks routinely oppose most government regulation of the environment, the food we eat, the air we breathe, the water we drink, the chemicals industries use; even the right to smoke anywhere at anytime. Such think tanks are generously supported by the tobacco and food industries to carry their message. For example, the President of the tobacco-funded Washington Legal Foundation wrote in the New York Times,

…food policy ideologues want to dictate what Americans choose to eat and drink. These professional activists are part of a well-organized New Prohibitionist movement devoted to controlling basic decisions in our everyday lives.... Don’t the food police understand that consumer freedom is at the core of American democracy?....Starbucks caffeine; a hotdog, beer, and fries at the ballpark; or a steak at the weekend family barbecue....

It isn’t known to this day which of the thousands of food policies and standards issued by WHO/FAO were actually influenced by the tobacco industry. However, as a result of the two reports, WHO and FAO pay far more attention to which experts are invited to supply necessary technical advice, and to have them openly declare any affiliations with commercial interests.

Philip Morris and RJR no longer own any food businesses. Tobacco company experts are not permitted on WHO/FAO committees. But the food industry is still an important asset to world health as WHO Director General Gro Harlem Bruntland pointed out to representatives of the food industry at Davos in January 2000:

The private sector has an important role to play. No UN agency, no non-governmental organization –– indeed, no health ministry, has the reach and the distribution power of the giant, multinational food and beverage companies, many of whom are represented here tonight. The quality of their products, the slant of their marketing, the values that make up their approach to developing country markets, can all make a difference in the health of whole populations. Even in a world where shareholder values are king, food and beverage companies have a responsibility to contribute to global health gains through better nutrition.

Norbert Hirschhorn MD

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