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BAT’s Tobago control campaign

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The latest version of BAT’s “the earth is flat” revivalist meetings for journalists in developing countries was a more local affair than usual, but it is interesting that it took place in Trinidad and Tobago. Perhaps this Caribbean country’s obvious sophistication in knowledge about tobacco was what condemned it to receive one of BAT’s disinformation attacks?

As chronicled in News Analysis recently, Trinidad’s prime minister refused to attend the launch of Rothmans’s Craven A brand last November, an example of good taste shared by a leading popular singer, Luciano, who tore down the brand’s banners at a sell-out concert being used as part of the launch; the health minister has made tobacco control one of his top priorities; and one of the country’s leading banks recently went smoke-free (Tobacco Control1998;7:9–10).

This level of awareness about tobacco was presumably equated with urgent need for attention in the minds of BAT’s public affairs officials, from whose dark bunker at BAT’s headquarters in the United Kingdom was despatched not the usual travel-loving academics from Britain and the United States, but Keith Gretton, communications manager, science and regulations. He went to Trinidad to help his colleague Keith Carter, corporate affairs manager of BAT’s local subsidiary, the West Indian Tobacco Company (Witco), run a one-day seminar for journalists at the Trinidad Hilton.

Carter started off with the absurd if faintly sinister announcement that Witco intends to carry out a survey “to determine why Caribbean youths smoke, with a view to establishing an anti-youth smoking programme”. Whatever these two public relations men lacked in the pretence of academic respectability so strenuously cultivated at previous events, they managed to achieve exactly the sort of coverage BAT loves to generate on such occasions.

One newspaper reported Gretton saying that “lung cancer and coronary disease could be caused by smoking,” but that “there was no definitive evidence that victims of these diseases did contract them as a result of smoking”. For this and other reasons, his company “rejected the view being put forward by anti-smoking activists that smoking was dangerous”; and “existing statistics on the number of persons who died from smoking-related diseases, like lung cancer, were not reliable, since the cause of the lung cancer was not determined”.

Another newspaper, under the headline: “British tobacco man: cancer not caused by smoking”, faithfully reported Gretton’s performance, including the usual BAT line with a genetic update: smoking is a risk factor for lung cancer, but “the biological messages that caused cancer in the body had not yet been identified”. Adding that cancer was also caused by “family history, diet and occupational exposures such as working in a coal mine”, Gretton cited an American Cancer Society study showing that male smokers in the United States were “22 times more likely to develop lung cancer”. Statistics like these, he said, “gave health authorities a basis to rest their concerns”; but as the same study showed that female smokers were “only 12 times more likely to develop the disease”, these and other statistics were obviously not conclusive.

Presumably nobody present, including Gretton, understood that there could be a perfectly sound reason for this conundrum, and apparently there was no scientist on hand to enlighten them. Perhaps that was one good reason for not fielding scientists this time round, and it must have cut travel costs too. As it happens, health experts the world over could help the parent company achieve even larger savings, by explaining why Caribbean youths smoke, thus saving the cost of the proposed survey. Using existing, though independent research, plus a sheaf of internal paperwork from some of BAT’s own companies, they could explain that Caribbean youths smoke for the usual reasons, found the world over. Those include the sort of associations Rothmans managed to achieve for its products last November—cult music, festive atmosphere, sport—which must have been the envy of BAT’s local salesmen. And of course there are many other reasons: just to take one example, how about the deliberate undermining of health education, by means of the outrageous disinformation that BAT managed to generate from the Hilton seminar?