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Two views of two-faced global violence
  1. Faculty of Medicine, Rangsit University, Phya Thai II Hospital, Phaholyothin Road, Phayathai, Bangkok 10400, Thailand phncr{at}

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Global aggression: the case for world standards and bold US action challenging Philip Morris and RJR Nabisco. INFACT. New York, New York: Apex Press, 1998. ISBN 0-945257-95-3 , pp 126.

Addicted to profit: Big Tobacco’s expanding global reach. Ross Hammond. Washington, DC: Essential Action, 1998. pp 58. < >

These two small books are important because they reveal the duplicity and deceit of two large American and one British transnational tobacco companies. On the threshold of a new millennium, what more global harm from tobacco is possible? These two volumes document and illustrate the alarming answer: tobacco industry expansion and aggression in economically vulnerable countries worldwide. Although the Cold War is over, there is no Marshall plan, only a merchandising plan. And that worldwide plan is as aggressive as any war, and unfortunately, has similar consequences. While the United States and the United Kingdom fight tobacco at home, they do little to control tobacco production, sales, and damage abroad.

These presentations are important at this time of seeming decline for the tobacco industry. In the admissions of wrongdoing, settlement money for medical claims, and limits on certain advertising and promotional activities in the West, there is an illusion of a more compliant and responsible tobacco industry. Facts and pictures in these books show that, in reality, there is no such thing as a kinder and gentler tobacco industry.

Global aggression pictures the Camel brand on traffic lights in Romania, girls in Vietnam and Cambodia handing out free cigarettes, and advertised but non-existent, Salem travel tours in Malaysia. These surreal sights are more than matched by the money being expended to capture tobacco markets in Africa, Asia, and Europe. An “Addicted to profit” table of licensing agreements, subsidiaries, or factories of the big three tobacco companies includes 99 countries, indicating their broad reach.

Predatory tobacco companies do damage to society in several ways. First, there are the disease consequences of tobacco. Although smoking is the most extensively documented cause of disease in the history of biomedical research, many among policymakers and the public do not recognise the seriousness of the problem. This is because in many developing nations tobacco merchandisers, with few exceptions, have strongly influenced the flow of information and public attitudes about tobacco use. Recent research in China shows that two-thirds of Chinese adults think that smoking does little or no harm. Although a conservative estimate of deaths from tobacco indicates that at least 60 million people have died prematurely in the last half century, estimates indicate that even with a halving of tobacco consumption, nearly three times this number will die in the first half of the next century.

Second, and just as seriously, the tobacco industry has damaged the fabric of social justice by engaging in numerous forms of moral disengagement and illegality. Moral disengagement—the disregard for moral claims—is characterised by four clusters of symptoms: re-construing harmful behaviour, obscuring causal agency, disregarding or misrepresenting harmful consequences, and blaming and devaluing victims. Tobacco company actions such as the following are a few examples of these mechanisms.

  • Redefining terms like “addiction” and legal manoeuvres to challenge those asserting responsibility for harm

  • Causal burden of proof challenges

  • Using hired researchers and public relations scientists and conferences to misrepresent consequences

  • Blaming smokers for killing themselves

This is in addition to agricultural, smuggling, and price fixing illegalities of tobacco companies and their employees. Humane societies must establish effective social safeguards against moral disengagement.

Third, and most recently, new global trends in trade have caused large transnational tobacco companies based in the United States and Britain to launch or strongly support trade actions for open markets. Although trade issues for ordinary products are important, tobacco companies, as well as health organisations worldwide, realise that tobacco is not an ordinary product. Nonetheless, trade issues are used to forward the competitive advantages of these large multinational companies. Capitalist realism, where consumption is the answer no matter what the question, makes perfect sense when you have a low-cost, universally accepted, addictive product and when past experience shows you can drive your smaller, less efficient competitors out of business and dominate emerging markets.

This last ploy is perhaps the saddest of all for unsuspecting countries that wish to show their competitive skills as part of a larger market system. Slowly, economic research is revealing the true inefficiencies of tobacco, but in the meantime, it must be asked whether specific human and cultural values that stand against the dependence, disease, and death of tobacco should be disregarded based on general economic policies masquerading as spearheads of democracy.

Although these books expose the aggression of three tobacco companies in sufficient detail, I note two flaws. First, I findGlobal aggression making many arguments, but failing to systematically develop them. It does not provide the transitions and continuity I expect in an integrated argument. Second, both books concentrate too much on describing the problem and do not ask for enough action from readers. If the point is to mobilise a “critical mass” of outraged people, then asking for signatures of support for a boycott is extremely tame action.

More importantly, this material is clearly directed at American or British readers, suggesting little defence for the citizen of the invaded country in the midst of the battle. Like advertisements that urge you not to smoke, but don’t tell you how to quit, I believe that much more should have been suggested—for example, to mobilise actions like collective media advocacy, legal challenges, and moral protests. For those who want to make more of their local activism, there should be more here.

I recommend these books, but I suggest you read them with a view to following with doable and eventful actions beyond the “cease and desist” strategy they advocate.