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Chile: tobacco and injustice

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Towards the end of last year, a retired army officer was detained by police in the United Kingdom pending a court extradition hearing. It emerged that this man had been visiting London fairly regularly, and that during these visits he had been in the habit of visiting an elderly lady friend for tea. During his most recent visit, he had also received medical treatment at the private hospital where he was arrested. He was released to await the outcome of the legal process, but forbidden to leave the country.

The man, former Chilean military dictator General Augusto Pinochet, was wanted for questioning by Spain, for alleged atrocities against Spanish citizens following his armed overthrow of the government of the late Salvador Allende in 1973. The woman, Lady Thatcher, former British prime minister, was among the first to call for the general’s release, not least, she said, because he was too “old, frail and sick” to withstand trial.

Speculation in the British press about what the two ex-rulers discussed over their cups of tea centred around arms deals, a topic which interests them both. However, when the general was forced to move into an exclusive and highly expensive residence while awaiting the outcome of the legal process, another connection was revealed: tobacco.

Within months of being scrapped as prime minister by her own political party, Margaret Thatcher took on a consultancy with Philip Morris. Apparently this was to help the company open doors to new markets, especially in Asia and other areas ripe for “development”, a commercial appointment the termination of which was only recently announced. And when the private hospital in north London to which the detained Pinochet had been moved asked him to leave, on the grounds that his presence was a nuisance and that there was nothing wrong with him, the person who emerged as his chief benefactor was none other than Carlos Carceres, president of the Chilean subsidiary of BAT.

Carceres is on the board of directors of the Pinochet Foundation, an organisation set up in the name of the former dictator to disburse scholarships to the children of military personnel. The foundation took the lead in the fight to defend Pinochet from the Spanish and British courts. BAT’s head office tried to distance itself from Pinochet: presumably, whatever the private opinions of individual directors, being seen in the company of a tyrant who presided over institutionalised torture and killings may be a little too much even for a tobacco company. An oleaginous BAT “consumer affairs” spokesman said: “The funding being given to General Pinochet’s case is being given by the Chilean subsidiary of BAT. . . . The donations are being administered in a purely personal capacity that have little to do with the company.” How can this possibly be true? If the money was not spent on Pinochet, it would surely be remitted to head office, in proportion to its stake in the Chilean subsidiary, and would then be available for distribution as a dividend?

Years of practice on issues such as marginally less lethal cigarettes (“product modification”) must induce a capacity for such absurd self-contradiction among head office spokesmen. Perhaps their only regret would be the number of the company’s customers who disappeared while in the general’s care. In a bizarre way, it is almost reassuring to find that a tobacco company’s corporate denial of the addictiveness and dangers of its products is matched by similar gobbledegook on other serious issues.


  • All articles written by David Simpson unless otherwise attributed. Ideas and items for News Analysis should be sent to David Simpson at the address given on the inside front cover.