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While smoking rate falls in Minnesota it’s rising elsewhere in world, thanks to Big Tobacco’s efforts

Minnesotans are smoking less — much less — than they were three decades ago, a new University of Minnesota study has found.

Great news for us. But terrible news for people living in developing countries. For as the market for cigarettes shrinks in Minnesota (and elsewhere in the United States and the developed world), multinational tobacco firms are turning to emerging markets to acquire new nicotine addicts and keep their profits growing.

And they’re apparently making sure the governments of these countries don’t get in their way. Using aggressive lobbying, threats of lawsuits, charitable donations and even outright payoffs, Big Tobacco is successfully blocking smoking reforms in fast-growing developing countries across the globe, a new investigation from the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ) has found.

The smoke is clearing in Minnesota
First, the good news from Minnesota. According to the latest Minnesota Heart Survey, which has been tracking trends in cardiovascular risk factors in the Twin Cities since 1980, the number of adult smokers aged 25 to 74 years old in the seven-country Minneapolis-St. Paul metropolitan area has been sliced in half during the past three decades.

In 1980, some 32.8 percent of men and 32.7 percent of women in the Twin Cities smoked. In 2009 — the year of the most recent Minnesota Heart Survey — those percentages had fallen to 15.5 percent (men) and 12.2 percent (women).

The decrease occurred among all socio-economic groups, but it was greatest among people with higher incomes and higher education. The percentage of current smokers among men with more than a high school education, for example, dropped from 29 percent in 1980 to 11 percent in 2009. Among men whose education ended before college, the decrease went from 42 percent to 31 percent.

“One of the other more interesting findings,” said Kristian Filian, lead author of the study and a postdoctoral associate at the U of M’s Division of Epidemiology and Community Health, “is that among people who continue to smoke there was a marked [40 percent] reduction in the amount of cigarettes they consume.”

“We thought there would be some reduction, but the 40 percent reduction was a little higher than expected,” he added.

Filian presented the study’s findings on Sunday at the American Heart Association’s annual scientific meeting in Chicago. I spoke to him on the phone on Monday.

Although the study didn’t examine why Twin Citians are smoking less, Filian said he believes legislative efforts, such as higher cigarette taxes and smoking bans, have helped, as have the educational efforts of groups such as ClearWay Minnesota.

“Our results do suggest that currently implemented interventions, education and legislative approaches are effective,” he said. “But it may not be a one-size-fits-all approach that works. We need interventions that target people at lower socioeconomic status.”

Big Tobacco’s fight against reforms
The kinds of smoking reforms that Minnesota has instigated — and that appear to have helped us cut our smoking rates — are just what Big Tobacco is fighting against in developing countries, the new ICIJ investigation reveals.

In their series of articles, which was published online today, ICIJ reporters document how the tobacco industry is spending huge sums of money to stop or soften smoking law reforms in such countries as Russia, Mexico and Uruguay. Here is the report’s summary of the industry’s efforts in just one of those countries, Russia, whose per capita smoking rate is among the highest in the world:

  • “Tobacco companies in Russia have long been financial backers of key politicians, making charitable donations to their pet causes. Among the contributions: $52,000 to a charity run by the wife of the finance minister, the key official in deciding how much excise tax will be levied on tobacco.”

  • “An extraordinary revolving door exists between the Russian government and the tobacco industry, with officials at times holding concurrent positions with both industry groups and the agencies that oversee them.”

  • “The country’s principal rules on smoking and tobacco advertising were drafted by tobacco lobbyists working with an influential former deputy prime minister.”
  • “One of Russia’s leading tobacco companies, Donskoy Tabak, is controlled by the wife of a powerful member of the State Duma, the nation’s federal legislature. The company continues to sign lucrative sales deals with the Russian military.”

  • “Russian tobacco lobbyists, listed as experts from the Ministry of Agriculture, participated in multinational talks designed to apply new tobacco controls in former Soviet nations.”

The efforts of the tobacco industry to water down smoking reforms has prompted tobacco-control advocates to publish “a watch-list of measures the industry most commonly uses to subvert proposed smoking and advertising controls,” writes the ICIJ reporters. They’ve nicknamed these measures the “Seven Deadly Ds”:

  • deny the harm tobacco poses;

  • deceive the public via paid-for science on tobacco;

  • divert governments by promising cooperation;

  • distract attention by pointing to other public health threats;

  • establish decoys of pro-tobacco coalitions of retailers and farmers;

  • make dire economic predictions of economic harm because of tobacco controls; and

  • delay controls via legal challenges.

Lest we forget, the products Big Tobacco pushes are the single-largest preventable cause of death in the world. Some 176 million people will die between 2005 and 2030 as a result of tobacco-related products, according to the World Health Organization. And 77 percent of those deaths will be in developing countries.

You can read the full four-part ICIJ series here.

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Comments (2)

  1. Submitted by Bill Coleman on 11/16/2010 - 01:20 pm.

    This is criminal and disgusting.

  2. Submitted by Hénock Gugsa on 11/16/2010 - 02:30 pm.

    And in some parts of the world, Big Tobacco does not even have to lift a finger or get politically involved to continue prospering. In the Middle East, for example, smoking is a cultural sine-qua-non. They export oil, and import coffee and cigarettes in a big way!

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