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Tobacco industry poised to deploy "˜dirty tricks' to increase business in third-world nations despite evidence aplenty of the substance's harmful effects

A woman lights an Altria Group Inc. Marlboro cigarette for a photograph in New York, USNow that smoking has declined in high-income nations, experts warn that the tobacco industry is targeting low and middle income countries for more customers.

Low and middle-income countries like Vietnam are set to "take the fall" as smoking declines in high-income nations because of increased awareness of tobacco's killer properties, experts warn. 

"As smoking has declined in the US and other high-income nations, the tobacco industry has targeted low and middle-income countries for new customers, aggressively marketing its products in countries where government regulation is lax," the New York-based tobacco-free advocate Campaign for Tobacco-free Kids said in a recent statement.

"The cost to health and economies around the world is staggering," it said.

In a recent action, the European Commission said it is providing 5.2 million Euros (US$7 million) to help low and middle-income countries effectively implement the World Health Organization's Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (FCTC), the first global public health treaty.

The funding, which would strengthen efforts to implement scientifically proven measures called for in the FCTC, aims to speed up progress on tobacco control and save lives.

According to the WHO, the tobacco epidemic is "one of the biggest public health threats the world has ever faced." It kills nearly six million people a year of whom more than 5 million are users and ex-users and more than 600,000 are nonsmokers exposed to second-hand smoke.

"Approximately one person dies every six seconds due to tobacco and this accounts for one in 10 adult deaths. Up to half of current users will eventually die of a tobacco-related disease," the organization warned.

Tobacco caused 100 million deaths in the 20th century and WHO said that if current trends continue, it will cause up to one billion deaths in the 21st century.

Tobacco use is also the only risk factor shared by all four main categories of non-communicable diseases, including cancer, heart disease, chronic lung disease and diabetes. 

"˜Big fight'

The WHO chief on Monday urged governments to unite against "big tobacco," accusing the industry of dirty tricks, bullying and immorality in its quest to keep people smoking.

WHO director-general Margaret Chan accused cash-rich tobacco firms of using lawsuits to try and subvert national laws and international conventions aimed at curbing cigarette sales.

"It is horrific to think that an industry known for its dirty tricks and dirty laundry could be allowed to trump what is clearly in the public's best interests," Chan said at a WHO meeting in the Philippine capital on Monday.

Chan cited legal actions by the tobacco industry against anti-smoking measures in Australia and Uruguay, saying these were "scare tactics" intended to frighten other countries from following suit.

"Big tobacco can afford to hire the best lawyers and PR firms that money can buy. Big money can speak louder than any moral, ethical or public health argument and can trample even the most damning scientific evidence."

In Australia, Prime Minister Julia Gillard's government is aiming to introduce the world's first legislation that would force all cigarettes to be sold in plain packaging from January 1 next year.

Major tobacco firm Philip Morris has launched a legal action against the move, claiming Australia's plans violate international trade obligations and warning it expects billions of dollars in compensation if the plain packaging goes ahead.

Australian Department of Health Secretary Jane Halton told the WHO forum in Manila that her government was determined to push through with its plan, despite the "subversive tactics" of tobacco companies.

"We stand ready to repel the assault of big tobacco but we acknowledge it will be a big fight," Halton told the WHO delegates.

Vietnam targeted

International experts have warned that Vietnam could face worsening impacts of the tobacco industry.

The WHO estimates that tobacco kills 40,000 Vietnamese every year, and by 2030 this number will increase to 70,000 annually.

"The tobacco industry has used legal tactics in many countries in attempting to block legislation," said Jorge Alday, a spokesperson at the New York-based NGO World Lung Foundation. "The deep pockets of the industry enable it to choose a strategy it thinks will be most effective in any particular country. Vietnam is also susceptible to such subversion, and even more so, because the government owns Vietnam's number-one tobacco brand, Vinataba."

Alday said Vietnam is "extremely susceptible to industry lobbying" and anti-smoking policies are often delayed or blocked due to the state-owned brand.

He said that many people in Vietnam still do not fully understand how harmful smoking is to themselves and the people they expose to tobacco smoke. There is scientific evidence to suggest that running such campaigns often enough can prompt people to try and quit, he said.

Nguyen Phuong Ha, media and project officer at HealthBridge Foundation, a Canada-based NGO working to improve the health of vulnerable populations, said it is not easy to obtain obvious evidence on how tobacco industry plays its "dirty tricks" in Vietnam because of government ownership of major firms.

Experts said tobacco companies have sponsored corporate social responsibility programs to improve their image and the image of tobacco among the Vietnamese people.

In April 2010, Viet Nam News, the official English-language newspaper, reported, "Philip Morris to build school for 260 kids" in the Mekong Delta city of Can Tho.

Two months earlier, the website of Can Tho Red Cross Society published a news item about Philip Morris donating 50 charity houses in the city's five districts.

In December 2010, the Ha Noi Moi (New Hanoi) newspaper reported on six years of charity programs carried out by British American Tobacco (BAT) nationwide.

Pham Thi Hoang Anh, country director and tobacco control program manager of HealthBridge Canada's Vietnam Office said the tobacco industry has been successful in ensuring that a strong tobacco control law has not yet passed in Vietnam to date.

"The current draft law has repeatedly been watered down due to industry interference," she said, adding that the industry has lobbied strongly against any significant legal measures and against higher taxes.

"It claims to support the poor, despite the fact that smoking is one of the main ways that the poor become poorer, through spending on tobacco products and on the diseases that smoking causes," Anh said.

"With its high smoking rates among men and rising incomes, the industry is definitely targeting Vietnam, and hopes to increase its business here."

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