Philip Morris International Inc and British American Tobacco Plc lobbied Pakistan’s government to not implement bigger health warnings on cigarette packs.
It was a part of an industry-wide campaign that successfully persuaded Islamabad to water down a proposal designed to save lives as reported by the officials.
The government estimates tobacco kills more than 100,000 people a year in Pakistan, Philip Morris launched a lobbying campaign that included letters to and a meeting with the country’s prime minister on blocking larger health warnings and controlling illegitimate trade of cigarettes.
Reuters reviewed two such letters written by Philip Morris executives to the Prime Minister’s Office in 2017, and internal company documents describing a meeting in 2015 at which executives discussed “protecting the pack” in Pakistan.
British American Tobacco, through its local subsidiary, also lobbied Prime Minister Shahid Khaqan Abbasi with a letter and met Pakistani officials, according to government documents and a review of the October 2017 correspondence.
Two current, and one former, health officials said their ministry watered down a requirement to increase the size of health warnings to 85 percent of the surface area due to industry lobbying. One of the current officials also cited pressure from Abbasi’s office.
A Federal Board of Revenue official said the government took a considerate view towards tobacco industry lobbying because of the sector’s hefty contributions to the nation’s finances which is more than $550 million in excise taxes during the 2016-17 fiscal year alone.
Instead of 85 percent, the new rule, which comes into effect on June 1, requires warnings that cover 50 percent of the pack – up from 40 percent now – rising to 60 percent in a year’s time which was decided in the recent budget.
In a response to Reuters’ questions, Philip Morris sent a statement from Moira Gilchrist, its vice president of scientific and public communications.
Like any global company, PMI regularly speaks with governments all over the world on a wide range of subjects, including our efforts to replace cigarettes with smoke-free products.
A spokesperson for British American Tobacco (BAT) said in a statement:
Like many companies, as part of our open and transparent engagement with governments, we regularly consult a wide range of representatives in health other relevant areas on a range of issues that affect our business. It’s important that any legitimate business should be able to engage with regulators and contribute to the development of policy that impacts it.
A Pakistan government survey in 2014 found some 24 million adults, or 19 percent of the population 15 years and older, used tobacco. Of those, 15.6 million were smokers.
In February 2015, Pakistan’s health ministry announced it was changing an ordinance to increase health warnings on the front and back of cigarette packs to 85 percent. The graphic photographs currently on packs depict the effects of smoking, such as a close-up image of a person’s mouth ravaged by tobacco use.
The tobacco representatives argued that the bigger health warning would lead to more smuggling of black market cigarettes and a “decrease in revenue”.
The industry argues here that cigarette packs become indistinguishable by brand or promised quality when the packaging is covered by disturbing images. As a result, it says, consumers are incentivized to turn to alternatives without the graphic pictures.
Health advocates say warnings on packs reduce tobacco consumption.
The BAT statement to Reuters said: “We agree that all tobacco product packaging should feature appropriate health warnings which are bold, easily legible and ensure clarity of message.”
However, the statement said:
Evidence suggests that drastic and large increases in the size of health warnings can result in a number of unintended consequences, including a rise in illegal cigarettes – with a corresponding decline in government revenues – and a rise in criminality. Additionally, there is still no credible evidence that graphic health warnings reduce smoking levels.
When the government’s inter-ministerial committee started to deliberate the health warning rules in 2015, Philip Morris and BAT representatives attended at least two of its meetings as industry stakeholders, according to records reviewed by Reuters.
During one meeting, a Philip Morris executive said the warning size was “too high”, according to a record of the meeting held in May 2015, which was chaired by Health Minister Tarar.
In addition to Philip Morris and BAT, a constellation of smaller tobacco companies, growers, and industry associations joined the lobbying effort, according to government records.
As BAT’s Pakistan Tobacco Company launched its lobbying effort, Philip Morris also sprang into action: two internal documents related to an Asia corporate affairs meeting in Indonesia in 2015 said the company had devised a “campaign to roll-back” the stringent tobacco pack rules in Pakistan. It did not go into details.
The panel’s subsequent recommendation to roll back the increase in the size of health warnings, to 50 percent and then 60 percent instead of 85 percent, was sent to the finance ministry for approval in August 2015.