Smoker? See how you fatten tobacco firms

Miriam Grace A. Go
The tobacco industry effectively earns US$6,000 per victim, says research

A student lights a cigarette near a school in Manila. Photo from AFP

SINGAPORE – If you’re a smoker in the Philippines, you made the big tobacco companies richer by about US$6,000 — a quarter of a million pesos — in 2011.
Imagine then if there are 6 million of you worldwide. You all would have given the tobacco industry profits that are “equal to the combined profits of Coca-Cola, Microsoft and McDonald’s” in 2010, said the authors of the 4th edition of the Tobacco Atlas, which was launched Wednesday at the 15th World Conference on Tobacco or Health here.

The 6 leading tobacco companies — the state-owned China Tobacco National Corporation, and the private Philip Morris International, Japan Tobacco International, British American Tobacco, Imperial Tobacco, and Altria/Philip Morris USA — had a combined net earnings of $35.1 billion in 2010. The following year, 6 million deaths from tobacco use were recorded.

“When considering 2011 deaths with tobacco industry revenue, the tobacco industry realizes almost $6,000 in profit for each death caused by tobacco,” authors Michael Eriksen, Hana Ross, and Judith Mackay said in a press release.

Eriksen, the lead author, said the numbers demolish the credibility of tobacco companies’ corporate social responsibility projects. “How can an industry claim to be socially responsible if it kills 6 million of its users and earn billions doing so?”

He said the tobacco industry, which he called a “disease vector,” is able to realize huge profits because it’s the most unregulated industry, thus allowing it to sell addictive and deadly products legally. Smokers have consumed more than 43 trillion cigarettes in the last 10 years

“If Big Tobacco were a country, it would have a gross domestic product of countries like Poland, Saudi Arabia, Sweden, and Venezuela,” the authors said.

“Apparently, this is good business for the tobacco industry but not for the rest of us,” said co-author Ross.

Weak regulation

In just the past decade, the number of tobacco-related deaths nearly tripled, that now a smoker dies every 6 seconds. Risks for the four leading non-communicable diseases–cancer, heart disease, diabetes, and chronic respiratory diseases–are increased with the use of tobacco.

Nearly 80% of deaths from tobacco use occurred in poorer countries. Many developed countries are enforcing strong tobacco control laws, thus their smoking and advertising bans, picture-based health warnings on packs, and increased excise taxes on tobacco products are driving companies to low- and middle-income countries.

In these poorer countries, weak government regulations and strong industry lobby have kept the prices of cigarettes so low that even young people can afford them.

In the Philippines, according to the atlas, 22% of deaths among males and 8% among females are caused by tobacco use. Smokers are starting young, too, with 16% of boys and 6.4% of girls within the 13- to 15-year-old bracket are smoking.

According to tobacco control advocates in the Philippines, 8 to 10 Filipinos die every hour from just 4 diseases caused by smoking. That’s 240 deaths every day, or 87,600 deaths every year.

The tobacco industry has tried to gloss over the number of deaths caused by their products by emphasizing the revenues they bring to the government.

Truth is, the P26 billion that the Philippine government collects every year as revenues from tobacco is small compared to the P325 billion in productivity losses and premature deaths due to 4 smoking-caused diseases.

The latest Tobacco Atlas, which was unveiled by the American Cancer Society and the World Lung Foundation, presents 15,000 data points, with analyses, based on records and resources of United Nations agencies and other organizations. (Copies are downloadable here.)

Below is a fact sheet on the Philippines:

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Miriam Grace A. Go

MIriam Grace A Go’s areas of interest are local governance, campaigns and elections, and anything Japanese.