Tobacco ban issue


Quick Links

1995, 1996, 1997

1998, 1999, 2000

2001, 2002, 2003

2004, 2005, 2006

2007, 2008, 2009

2010, 2011

Category: Health Care Date: 26 Mar 00

Rafeeq: Can’t live with it Witco: Can’t live without it


The West Indian Tobacco Co Ltd, producer of duMaurier, Benson and Hedges, Broadway and Mt D’or cigarettes, which currently spends a whopping $12 million a year on advertising and sponsorship, is calling for a meeting with the Minister of Health, Dr Hamza Rafeeq to discuss governments move to place a total blackout on tobacco advertising in this country.


But Minister Hamza Rafeeq has bluntly refused to meet with Witco over the proposed legislation which is now before the law commission for consideration, saying he doesn’t trust the company after it reneged on several promises to reduce tobacco advertising.


There has been no correspondence to this effect between Witco and the Health Minister. Following is a dialogue on each party’s position on the controversial Bill, put together after separate telephone interviews, with Health Minister Dr Hamza Rafeeq and Witco’s corporate and regulatory manager, Keith Carter on the proposed banning.


WITCO: Yes we make a controversial product. But let’s not go overboard. We have been trying to meet with the Minister of Health since he first proposed the ban in 1998 but have not been able to get that meeting going. We agreed to meet in February this year but he cancelled in the last minute. At least let’s talk.


RAFEEQ: I met with the former CEO of Witco Audley Walker and the PRO some years back. They promised they would not target young people, that they would do a public awareness programme discouraging people from smoking. They reneged on both counts. Not long after that they started an aggressive marketing campaign by giving away cigarettes and $50 to people. The truth is, I don’t trust them. I don’t want to meet them because I don’t want to appear that the Health Ministry is sleeping with the tobacco company. The bottom line is Witco’s sales have shot up. More people are smoking than ever before.


WITCO: We have had a 0.7 per cent increase in domestic sales but that does not necessarily mean more people are smoking - the same number could be smoking more.


RAFEEQ: Whether or not more people are smoking or people are smoking more, the fact is there is more tobacco out there, which puts people’s lives at risk. We would like to go as far as the Canadians - that of a complete ban on all tobacco advertising and sponsorship and ban smoking in public places.


WITCO: Canadian tobacco laws are draconian by any standards. We are a legal business and we should have a right to advertise like anyone else. You’re talking about taking away our commercial freedom of speech. We say, let us maintain billboard advertising and sponsorship and replace our television advertising with an education campaign on the ills of smoking. Let’s develop a “quit line” like the US. Educating people is going to make them more amenable to quitting as opposed to imposing a blackout. We say to adult consumers if you enjoy your smoke, be responsible. Don’t overdo it with four packs a day. Cut down. Be responsible.

(Note: Canadian regulations include a ban on point-of-purchase items that bear brand or product graphics. They require stark, large print health warnings on the front of each package; eliminate brand sponsorship of sporting events, and ban cigarette vending machines. The government is currently considering requiring plain packaging on cigarettes.)


RAFEEQ: Government is taking the international perspective and is committed to a World Health Organisation (WHO) “tobacco free” initiative to which every country has been invited. We agree with WHO’s position that tobacco companies target young people in advertising. And they know that when they use popular sporting and cultural events to promote their products, young people will be continue to associate exciting events with smoking. We want to de-link tobacco from these events.


WITCO: Witco Desperadoes is a major icon in this country and you have to deal with that. Our philanthropic activities are wide ranging because we are committed to contribute to our society. Several communities, NGO’s, sporting associations, and agencies, including the media and advertisers, will suffer. People depend on us. As a subsidiary of British American Tobacco we operate under their standard voluntary code of advertising. The code includes, among others, not advertising in political, religious or children’s shows, not placing billboards within 200 metres of a school and ensuring our models are 25 and up, and look it.


RAFEEQ: The government will take steps to ensure that communities currently benefiting from tobacco sponsorship will not be affected. Government is committed, once the ban comes through, to providing a stopgap to communities until other corporate sponsorship comes through.


WITCO: Statistics show wherever you have advertising bans, the incidence of smoking increases rather than decreasing.


RAFEEQ: If as Witco says, a total ban on advertising will boost tobacco sales then they should be happy. WHO and countries that have banned advertising say a decrease in advertising has had a direct impact in lowering sales of tobacco.


WITCO: We can’t ape industrialised countries like Canada and Norway. They have higher incidence of lung cancer there. We need to identify local problems and apply local solutions for them.


RAFEEQ: I don’t buy that. Our epidemiological patterns mimic that of industrialised countries. We have imported all our bad habits from them without having the luxury of their huge back up resources for spending to deal with tobacco control after it becomes a major health issue. We are going the way of preventative health because we can’t afford to mop up the mess afterwards.


WITCO: What about freedom of choice? How you drive a car? How you drink? What you eat? These are lifestyle choices which mature responsible adults have to make and cannot and should not be regulated. You could drink and drive carelessly and kill four people in an instant. Does that mean you ban cars and alcohol?  We have health warnings on packs and billboards. It may not be enough. We have no problem with the health authorities educating people with data that show that smoking is linked to very serious diseases. But those who smoke will balance their pleasure with risk, and will not by swayed by the position of a health authority. There are more than 40 reasons for heart disease and smoking is just one of them. Research has linked fast foods like McDonalds and Kentucky with heart diseases. Does that mean the government is going to shut these food chains down? Everything is relative. We are a soft target but where will Government controls stop?


RAFEEQ: It is ridiculous to compare fast food with tobacco. You need food to live and there is some necessary nutrition even in fatty foods. Smoking has absolutely no health benefits. On the contrary smoking is linked to over 30-40 diseases. Heart disease is just one of them. Youths are now being targeted in aggressive campaigning and once the company hooks people on tobacco their job is done. They’ve got a customer for life since its addictive and very difficult to stop. We get 100 cases of lung cancer each year and 95 are related to smoking. If I can save those lives the ban will be worth it. A total ban on tobacco advertising is just part of an overall campaign by the Government towards creating a healthier country. To start with, my ministry has declared April “Health promotion month”.

I have been encouraged and heartened at the widespread public support I have had on this health initiative.


Reporter’s note: Canada, Poland and Norway, have a virtual blackout ban on tobacco advertising and sponsorship. Sri Lanka and all countries in the European union are revising tobacco advertising legislation after facing opposition to a total ban.


Let the debate begin.


horizontal rule



All Articles Copyright Ira Mathur