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It is getting tougher at the top of America’s big tobacco companies. Not only do you have ever more billions of dollars to husband for your shareholders, mostly institutions whose only concern is the profit you make for them and the growth in value of their holdings, but every year your annual general meeting (AGM) gets more stressful. In the past, it must have been a rather nice day out from the office, cheered by applause from the floor as you announced greatly increased sales and profits, lit up by the flashlights of photographers from the financial press, all followed by a nice lunch with your colleagues.
Things are rather different now. Those attending and staging protest activities around tobacco company AGMs this year included representatives from a wider range of organisations and locations than ever before. More than a hundred youth and adult health and community activists from many US states and worldwide, including many developing country representatives; campaigning priest Father Michael Crosby; and nurses from the Nightingales, making their fourth consecutive appearance at tobacco company AGMs, as well as adding a newcomer to their list, General Electric (GE), parent company of movie giant Universal, which the nurses and the Rev Crosby urged to get tobacco out of child-rated movies, or at least adopt an effective rating system.
The programme of activities the various groups got up to was also unprecedented: youth advocacy training followed by a demonstration outside the shareholders’ meeting of Altria, which owns Philip Morris (PM), and active participation inside the meeting itself; a demonstration at Altria’s headquarters in New York City; and visits to other AGMs - Reynolds American, Lowes, US Tobacco and GE.
Altria, the largest of the international tobacco companies, received the greatest attention, and overall, at least an hour of its time was taken up by activities related to the inconvenient fact that it profits from products that are addictive and kill millions of people every year. Contributors from the floor included Dina Kania of the national commission for child protection in Indonesia. She told Louis Camilleri, Altria’ chief executive, “You say you don’t advertise to minors, but Philip Morris advertises everywhere in Indonesia, on billboards, in bus stops, television, posters and even near schools. In other words, minors see your advertisements every day.” Mr Camilleri, politely but predictably, replied that it was misleading to try to simplify “what are very complex issues.” But the issues raised by the Rev Crosby were certainly not complex: in language that can be difficult for a health advocate to use but which is daily fare for a priest, he told Mr Camilleri, “You are legal, but not everything that is legal is moral. Every one of the Board of Directors, every one of the shareholders, is making money on an immoral product, which if used as intended will kill, because it addicts. I think that as we separate this company and ‘celebrate - as you say, ‘celebrate,’ ‘it‘s an exciting time,’ - it can’t be an exciting time if you have moral convictions.”
Other contributors included Stephen Ross, representing a youth group in New Hampshire, who addressed the company’s resistance to use retail promotional space to inform children about the dangers of smoking - apparently the company says this is the responsibility of public health officials. In a classic show of tobacco industry sophistry, Mr Camilleri said, “It’s ironic that you don’t think public health has a role in this. It’s quite ironic.” Perhaps he was irked at Ross’s promise that, “...we won’t go away. We will come back year after year after year until you are willing to put our lives ahead of your bank accounts.”
Whatever Mr Camilleri really felt, it was left to others on his side to do the heckling, with at least two members of the audience referring to health activists as “the lunatic fringe.” But when Essential Action’s Anna White voiced concern that the proposed break-up of Philip Morris posed the risk that Philip Morris International (PMI) would become even more effective at spreading “its toxic products” and that an independent PMI, likely to be based in Switzerland, would no longer feel constrained by public opinion or the possibility of domestic regulation or litigation in its home country, Camilleri seemed to be feeling the strain. He told her that what she had said did not make any sense, and was “a major insult to Switzerland,” before expressing exasperation at her lack of response to PM’s offers to have a dialogue.
Tobacco companies love dialogue, of course, so that they can assert that all their activities are carried out with the implicit consent of what they call their “stakeholders.” They would like nothing more than a truly worldwide dialogue with their antagonists, to try to neutralise them and negate their only tool, the science base that determines that the solution to preventing hundreds of millions more tobacco deaths lies in reducing consumption. Everyone in public health must be alert to their efforts to neutralise or blunt measures taken under the Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (FCTC), by far the best opportunity we have ever had. But if the industry is ever happy with how the FCTC works, the treaty will fail.