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In the June 2001 issue of Tobacco Control, Stella Aguinaga Bialous and Derek Yach presented a paper entitled “Whose standard is it, anyway? How the tobacco industry determines the International Organization for Standardization (ISO) standards for tobacco and tobacco products” (Tobacco Control 2001;10:96–104). Using tobacco industry documents, the authors “describe the extent of the tobacco industry involvement in establishing international standards for tobacco and tobacco products and the industry influence on the [ISO].” Evidently, Big Tobacco was not amused.
Offering only “light and mild” praise for the authors, the tobacco industry has lavished king size attention on their paper, with editorial reinforcements recruited from companies spread across four continents. The heightened display of interest is a sure sign that a nerve had been hit by Bialous and Yach, the Executive Director, Noncommunicable Diseases and Mental Health Project Manager at the World Health Organization (WHO), and who also manages WHO's Tobacco-Free Initiative. Clearly, issues of international measurement standards and product regulation are of critical importance to global cigarette marketing strategies.
In the February 2002 edition of Beiträge zur Tabakforschung (Contributions to Tobacco Research), a journal sponsored by the Verband der Cigarettenindustrie (German Association of Cigarette Industries), Richard R Baker, of BAT, delivers the industry's response, and it is an industry wide rejoinder, not merely the work of BAT. Though Baker, senior principal scientist of BAT Research & Development, is listed as sole author of “The development and significance of standards for smoking-machine technology” (Beiträge zur Tabakforschung 2002;20:23–41), he acknowledges the assistance of no less than 20 “colleagues” at BAT's competitors Philip Morris, RJ Reynolds, Imperial Tobacco (UK), and others for this first person, sometimes folksy 19 page effort.
Despite all those industry minds at work, they never mount a charge that could topple the main conclusions of Bialous and Yach that “ISO's tobacco and tobacco products standards are not adequate to guide tobacco products regulatory policies, and no health claims can be made based on ISO's tobacco products standards”. Instead, Baker provides a detailed history of the development of FTC (Federal Trade Commission), CORESTA (Paris-based Cooperation Centre for Scientific Research Relative to Tobacco), and ISO standards for cigarette smoking machines and, in passive-aggressive prose, challenges the Tobacco Control authors' integrity.
With almost endearing condescension, Baker says he's “sure that Bialous and Yach wrote the paper with the objective of presenting an unbiased view of the development of the subject”, but immediately follows with a challenge to their concentration on “selected quotes from internal company documents, taken out of context”. In one such quote, from a 1993 Philip Morris Europe research and development letter, CORESTA is described as “100% controlled by the industry” and the relevant ISO technical committee to be “made of approximately 80% Industry”. Baker tries to diminish the significance of this fact by saying that tobacco companies comprise only 44% of the membership, but it turns out the rest of the members come almost exclusively from industry partners and suppliers.
While hoping, with little or no success, to find trivial errors in the Bialous and Yach paper, Baker more importantly ignores the catastrophic impact of reliance on smoking machine readings, and the consequent “low-tar myth”. Worse, he states, apparently in earnest, that to his knowledge: “no overt statement has ever been made by the tobacco industry to the public (consumers or the scientific community) that smoking a low `tar' cigarette is a safer form of smoking.” This, despite the fact that one of the Bialous and Yach references is to an earlier Tobacco Control paper (Leavell N-R. The low tar lie. Tobacco Control 1999;8:433–7) that details just such “overt statements”.
A key message of Bialous and Yach's analysis is that the ISO standards have served the industry's interests by “providing the impression of legitimacy to industry claims that cigarettes with lower levels of tar and nicotine yield were less harmful”. Baker ultimately, and notwithstanding his own “objective of presenting an unbiased view”, reiterates that specious claim. Less tar makes more sense than more tar but, where measurements fail to truly reflect smoking behaviour, less can sadly be more. Smokers who stop puffing consume no tar at all. Those who take false reassurance from machine ranked tar yields do need to know whose standard it is, anyway.