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Lithuania: PM tries it on again

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Lithuania is the westernmost of the three Baltic states—the others are Latvia and Estonia—and is now a member of the European Union. Remarkable progress has already been made since regaining independence after many years in the former Soviet Union. But while Lithuania appears to be thriving under democracy and a re-established market economy, it suffers the major disadvantage of being on the receiving end of attention from the tobacco companies.

Philip Morris (PM) has owned a factory in Klaipeda, in the north west of Lithuania, since 1994, the biggest tobacco factory in the Baltic states, where it makes cigarettes for Latvia and Estonia, as well as for local sales. In addition, its holding company, Altria, has a Kraft factory in Lithuania. Not surprisingly, PM has the largest share of Lithuania's cigarette market. Perhaps such relatively large operations and the need to try to persuade the Lithuanian government not to take action that might depress their profitability, are why the company has seemed desperate recently to spend its stockholders' money on public relations stunts.

For some years PM has been among the major sponsors of New Baltic Dance, a prominent feature in Lithuania's cultural events calendar since 1995. The company's persistent efforts to worm its way into the life of the country's non-governmental organisations (NGOs) are also of concern. On several occasions in recent years, the vigilance of health advocates, in particular those of the national coalition on tobacco and alcohol control, has brought to light activities that must be designed to win political influence.

Later, another initiative came to light: PM, apparently in collaboration with the economic ministry, was reportedly floating the idea of being allowed to participate in a special market zone with reduced tax rates in Klapeida, designed to attract new businesses rather than to benefit those already established there. Once again, timely publicity probably helped to stop the proposal in its tracks, with the economic ministry issuing a specific denial that any such initiative would take place.

Most recently, in October, PM issued a call for project grant applications for NGOs in the Klaipeda region. PM said it particularly wanted to give financial support to projects promoting social aims, as well as independent activities of NGOs and other, more informal groups. Priority is to be given to projects concerned with the social integration of disabled people, decreasing social deprivation and exclusion, and environmental protection. Needless to say, the health coalition circulated an open letter to NGOs asking them not to apply or participate.

PM does not work alone in its efforts to continue business as usual. For example, Japan Tobacco joined in efforts to persuade the government to implement the World Health Organization's Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (FCTC) more weakly than it proposed. Presumably several tobacco companies are at work behind the scenes at any one time on lobbying activities and recently, what was almost certainly a result of such work, was seen.

Having worked hard with the Ministry of Health to ensure tougher, not weaker FCTC implementation, health advocates are proud of Lithuania now having a smoking ban in bars, restaurants, discos and other places that the industry, at the very least, would like to make exceptions to workplace smoking bans. Indeed, the Lithuanian ban is one of the strongest in Eastern Europe. However, just after the law came into force, the tobacco industry found politicians willing to take up its cause to try for at least a partial reverse. These hired guns are now pushing discussions about the need for smoking rooms. In addition, the tobacco industry also sponsored a study about abolishing the state tobacco and alcohol agency.

As in so many other smaller, independent countries, tobacco control work in Lithuania has to be carried out by busy people who all have other, paid jobs, including doctors in highly demanding and responsible clinical posts. International tobacco control funding agencies please note: for the foreseeable future, Lithuania would benefit greatly from having a dedicated, independent tobacco control agency with a paid staff.