LETTER: Philip Morris’s reinvention as crusader for public health is disingenuous
What exactly is PMI recommending if products they deem ‘appropriate for the protection of the public health’ should be regulated differently to cigarettes?
Although tobacco advertising has been banned in SA since 1999, the tobacco industry still finds ways to advertise its products. Philip Morris SA's (PMSA's) sponsored article heavily promoted its so called “smoke-free” products and stated that they want to “replace cigarettes as soon as possible” (“Unsmoke SA: it’s time for a new conversation to reduce smoking rates,” January 28).
This call needs to be seen in context of Philip Morris’s actions. Why did Philip Morris International sue the Uruguayan government over implementing tobacco control laws if it wants a cigarette-free world?
If PMSA were genuinely concerned about the public health of South Africans, they would stop selling cigarettes altogether — it hasn’t and it won’t. While the industry continues to profit from selling cigarettes, it disguises itself behind a supposed commitment to a “smoke-free” world. Despite statements by Philip Morris as far back as 1954 saying they would stop selling cigarettes if they knew they were harmful, nearly seven decades later they are still selling cigarettes.
PMSA claims its “goal is to bring together a community of people committed to making a difference, and accelerating change to the benefit of public health”. PMSA is not a public interest organisation — it is a corporation. A corporation must make its shareholders the best profits possible. If it can get away with killing people to do so, it will (and it has). So, this newfound altruism that reinvents itself as a crusader for public health is disingenuous.
We agree with PMSA that smoking remains a major public health challenge in SA and across the globe. The author writes “A smoke-free SA is possible, and it’s time to raise the level of conversation on how to achieve this for the sake of millions of adult smokers, their friends and families”. This concern is hollow coming from a company that contributes to 42,100 tobacco-related deaths each year in SA. They have opposed previous tobacco control legislation, and are opposing the department of health’s Tobacco Control Bill.
“Smoke-free” tobacco and/or nicotine products are presented as the solution for smokers who are unable to quit smoking. New products are promoted as a “common-sense approach” to reduce smoking rates. It is only common-sense to switch from one tobacco product developed by the tobacco industry to another tobacco product developed by the same industry if you want to protect a corporate bottom line. A healthier approach would be to quit altogether, not to replace one harmful product with another.
The article admits that “the best way ... is to quit cigarettes and nicotine completely” but then argues that people “who won’t quit” should have “the next best choice” which is “to switch to better, “smoke-free” alternatives — a choice that deserves to be made on the basis of accurate and non-misleading information.”
It is very heartening to hear that Phillip Morris is now committed to information that is accurate and does not mislead. But the public might be cynical given that Philip Morris International (PMI) have been documented to have deliberately misled the public in the past about the health harms of smoking. PMI promotes these products as less risky, yet evidence is clear that these products are in fact unsafe and unhealthy.
PMI commissioned Povaddo, a high-end corporate consultancy, to conduct “independent” research on its “smoke-free” products. The tobacco industry has a history of funding “independent” research to promote their agenda, both globally and in SA. In 2019 JTI paid Victory Research to assess people’s perceptions of plain packaging to dissuade government from implementing plain packaging. The research, as is often the case, is beset with methodological flaws.
The Povaddo report is no exception. In a 137 page report, barely two pages of the report deal with how the sample was selected. Povaddo does not disclose how the countries or respondents were selected, who refused to participate and why, and how the questions were asked. These are all critical questions for scientific validity. A study of 16,099 men and women sounds impressive but if a sample is biased it doesn’t matter how large the sample is.
Given that PMI stands to benefit from marketing “smoke-free” products, we are not surprised that this “independent” study found “above-average support for tobacco companies working on smoke-free alternatives”.
The claim that “there is a growing body of evidence that we can achieve a public health benefit using traditional tobacco control methods alongside a harm reduction strategy involving smoke-free alternatives” is simply untrue. The bulk of validated scientific evidence in peer-reviewed journals shows the opposite — harm-reduction strategies involving “smoke-free” alternatives are already showing indications of being highly counterproductive to tobacco control efforts.
PMSA says it can help achieve a situation where “youth access is prevented”. If this is true, why do they promote smoke-free alternatives on social media, which are predominantly used by young people? It would be all very well if the industry only promoted these alternatives as quit aids, but the evidence does not support this altruistic claim.
While the evidence on the use of social media to promote “smoke-free” products and to circumvent advertising bans in SA is still mounting, there is evidence internationally. A paper published in 2019 analysed 940 Instagram posts by 22 Czech celebrities and influencers promoting IQOS. These posts presented IQOS as a gateway to an aspirational, healthy, attractive, celebrity lifestyle. Particular hashtags such as #IQOSambassador revealed that the posts were, in reality, paid advertising. Another study looked at more than 245,000 instagram posts that promote vaping hashtags.
What exactly is PMI recommending if products they deem as “appropriate for the protection of the public health” should be regulated differently to cigarettes? It can be safely assumed that the tobacco industry would like “smoke-free” alternatives to be freely available in shops for sale without any health warnings or age restrictions. The 2018 Tobacco Control Bill, which was circulated for public comment in 2018, proposes measures to regulate e-cigarettes and other alternative products that are in the interest of public health, not industry profit. The government would do well to ignore “evidence” generated by the tobacco industry.
Leslie London, Nicole Vellios, Savera Kalideen and Sharon Nyatsanza