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There is mounting concern among health advocates around the world about the tobacco industry's latest public relations strategy: pretending that it has changed, and asking for a dialogue with government and health authorities in place of previous confrontation. It is as if a person repeatedly convicted of theft decides, perhaps on the advice of his lawyers, to announce a change of character, and engage the police force in pleasant conversation, helped along by a generous contribution to funds, and sponsorship of a programme purporting to reduce crime. The paedophilia analogy in the editorial of this issue is equally valid (p 261). To demand instant acceptance of a change is not only inappropriate, but presumes that the industry has changed its entire character. In reality, there is no sign whatever of any change in areas where it really matters, such as the promotion of tobacco in developing countries, or the slick manipulation of media messages in its ongoing attempt to downplay the risks of its lethal products. Furthermore, there is the potential of great damage to the goals of health agencies who are taken in by the industry's new strategy, for such is all it amounts to.
That this disturbing strategy is inappropriate and can lead to embarrassment and ineffectiveness can be seen in Romania, where no one could fault the health minister in his speech at the academy of economic studies in the capital on 30 May, in a meeting to mark World No Tobacco Day. He did not mince words about the industry. One of the major principles of the tobacco industry is to highlight the notion that a “decision” to smoke is an act of liberty, he told his audience in a country where liberty is a particularly important concept, and one which, for most citizens, was only regained comparatively recently. He went on to explain the irrelevance of the concept when it comes to smoking, especially in view of tobacco companies' promotional activities, associating images of handsome young men and women exuding high spirits and good health with tobacco consumption. This is cheating the public, he said, citing studies that have shown how smoking uptake is influenced by the promotional activities of the tobacco industry. And for good measure he ended his speech by repeating the message of the director general of the World Health Organization: “Don't be duped—tobacco kills!”
Unfortunately, on the very same day, theAdevarul newspaper ran an advertisement from British American Tobacco (BAT) and Philip Morris about their joint educational programme. Headed “Education programme”, presumably to explain to those who thought it was just another cigarette promotion, the advertisement showed a suitably healthy and obedient looking child saying: “The decision is mine. I don't smoke! Our creed is that minors don't have to smoke!” Under the companies' names, a caption explained how this was the pilot of an educational programme carried out by the ministry of education with the support of the ministry of youth and sport—and the ministry of health.
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.