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Tobacco industry’s code on sexual harassment a red herring

The New Straits Times, April 28, 2002

By Dzulkifli Abdul Razak

The tobacco industry will do anything to reverse its poor public image, but only if it does not hurt sales. The latest move is to officially launch a Code of Practice on the Prevention and Eradication of Sexual Harassment.

As is normally the case, a minister was roped in to lend some credibility, and this time it was the Minister of Human Resources.

But one is curious how much "sexual harassment" is actually going on in the tobacco industry that the launching of such a code takes precedence over others. The industry, infamous for its prominent "killing track record" makes the latest attempt to be more of a public relation exercise, if not a red-herring. Rightly the push should have been towards a code for the prevention and eradication of smoking-related deaths. Many countries have very stringent laws put in place to prevent if not eradicate smoking-related deaths. But sadly for Malaysians, we still have a very long way to go, since the industry is still having the upper hand in policy-planning and directives on tobacco here.

Some time back, the industry initiated a short-lived nationwide campaign to prevent youth below 18 from smoking. It was clearly more for the benefit of the industry, as the rate of Malaysian youth smoking continues to rise. But given the currently vociferous debate on rape and incest amongst the public, this code may be timely, based on the increasing percentage of women who are beginning to smoke as indicated in a recent study by the Health Ministry (NST, March 24).

For example in the February 2002 issue of the Reader's Digest, an article "Merchants of Death", was subtitled: "Cigarette makers are seducing a generation of young Asian women". There is no doubt that the word "seducing" is well chosen as illustrated in the article, especially as women are the industry's new favourite targets, a view shared by the US Surgeon-General report, just last year.

Reader's Digest cited examples not only in Malaysia but also many other Asian countries.

It quoted the industry publication, Tobacco Reports, as saying: "Rising per capita consumption, a growing population, and an increasing acceptance of women smoking continue to generate new demand." A demand artificially created by the industry with "enormous consequences on health, income, the fetus and family," according to a World Health Organization (WHO) consultant. WHO forecasts that 500 million women will begin smoking, mostly in developing countries. Already in Malaysia, the smoking prevalence among female 15 years and above has increased from four per cent (in 1985) to almost five per cent (in 2000); and for 18 years and above, from 3.5 per cent (in 1995) to five per cent in 2000.

The number of female smokers is now about 10 per cent (450,000) of the total population of 15 years and above. Such is the industry's power of seduction — an act of sexual harassment through vivid advertising come-ons that often adorn our media screens and bulletins.

Whatever the merit of the situation, that the industry is clearly reaping the health of millions of Malaysians is an undisputed fact, at least where smoking is concerned. To realise how desperately the industry is trying to seduce even national governments, we only need to recall how Philip Morris, the world's largest tobacco company, concluded in a report last year that cigarettes are not a drain to national budget. Instead it has the audacity to claim in part "the government saves money on health care, pensions and housing when smokers die prematurely," (NST, Aug 5, 2001). The fact that things have not changed in any significant way, with respect to tobacco-control in Malay-sia, goes to show that many of our policy-planners and decision-makers are no less prone to seduction by the industry's argument at the very least. It is in this context that we need to realise why preference was given to sexual harassment rather than the millions of deaths that the industry sponsored through smoking. The misplaced priority cannot be more glaring. Until we realise that the subtlety of the smokescreen staged by the industry, we, as a nation, will continue to be impotent to act against the Merchants of Death.

In fact in the US, the smoke-screen reportedly ranges from supporting book fairs, food drives, flood relief and even domestic violence shelters, to philanthropic activities and assisting "good causes great and small — from tennis tournaments to Hunters for the Hungry, an organisation that processes deer meat for the poor," according to one report.

It is, therefore, important never to lose sight of the long-standing dubious track record demonstrated by the many landmark lawsuits the industry has so far lost.

Although one commentator deemed the industry as "a corporate model of that great American archetype: The sinner who is born again," for Malaysia, they are yet to be born again. Rather they are still too busy sinning.

To that end we need to continually press on a more immediate code, one that must prevent and eradicate smoking-related incidences of death.
Recommended site: http://www.inwat.org/mtalk.htm 

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