South Africa, to its great credit, has taken firm steps to introduce some of the world’s toughest anti-smoking laws to the undisguised alarm of the tobacco companies, which have declared total war on the initiative, assembling some bizarre foot-soldiers, including Slaman Rushdie’s ghost to defeat it. The companies, led by the Commercial Free Speech Group - taking a leaf out of the book of the west’s campaign against Imam Khomeini’s anti-blasphemy fatwa - have invoked the issue of free speech to fight the proposed anti-smoking legislation in the courts.
Under the Tobacco Products Control Amendment Bill, passed in parliament in Cape Town in early November, all tobacco advertising as well as smoking in public places, will be banned. The restrictions are expected to affect an estimated seven million people.
To become law, the bill needs approval of the country’s upper house, the National Council of Provinces (NCOP) - which has already been given - and be signed by president Nelson Mandela. He postponed signing the bill on November 18, asking instead his legal advisers to review whether it could be challenged on constitutional grounds. Opponents of the bill argue that by banning cigarette advertising, it infringes on their ‘free speech.’
When passed into law, the bill will make South Africa the first ‘developing’ country to have such a strict ban on tobacco - enabling it to join 22 ‘developed’ States boasting anti-smoking legislation. In a sense, the South African move is similar to Pakistan’s pioneering acquisition of nuclear technology - as the first Muslim State to explode a nuclear device - which was bitterly opposed by western countries determined to starve Muslims of modern technology.
The global tobacco mafia - including western governments that earn a fortune from the tobacco industry as tax revenue - opposes the South African legislation not only because the country is one of Africa’s most important markets but because other ‘developing’ States might copy it. Anti-smoking legislation and the growing awareness of the threat of smoking to people’s health in ‘developed’ countries have forced tobacco companies to concentrate on other regions to recoup their losses. This explains their strong reaction to the South African initiative.
The companies most affected by the move are British American Tobacco (BAT) and Rothmans International, which between them have 90 percent of the South African market. Having for years foisted their murderous products on South Africans and bankrolled successive apartheid regimes - prospering in the process - they now claim they are the victims of injustice and plan to challenge the proposed legislation in the courts on constitutional grounds. They have even described the speedy progress of the bill through the lower house as ‘kangaroo justice.’
The managing director of BAT, Steven Jurgens, is quoted in newspaper interviews as saying: ‘We reserve the right to take legal action. A strong option will be to take the health minister to the constitutional court. The discussions have been one-sided. The industry was just informed of what the department of health planned to do.’
The arrogant and powerful tobacco companies, which have top politicians and other public figures in the west on their payroll, expected the South African authorities to pander to them, briefing them at every stage of the legislative process. When that did not happen, they sued the health ministry before the high court for access to documents used to draft the bill. The court rejected their application.
The companies, a virtual mafia outfit, are of course not about transparency. And rattled by the size of support for the bill in parliament - 213 to 100 votes - and the stringency of its restrictions, they are bound to use shady tactics to defeat the proposed legislation, including political pressure from western governments. They have already used the scare tactics of the alleged threat to employment and the promotion of sports they employed in their opposition to anti-smoking laws in developed countries.
They argue that the ban on advertising will restrict the development of sports among black South Africans, and that it will lead to 15,000 job losses, aggravating the already high unemployment rate of 30 percent. Dr Ebrahim Jassat, member of parliament who is on the health committee, has dismissed such concerns. Talking to Crescent International, he said that both the Cricket Association of South Africa and FIFA, the International Football Federation, had successfully switched to other industries for sponsorship.
The fear of loss of income from tobacco sales is not restricted to companies alone. Tobacco growers in the west and the ‘developing’ world are also deeply worried, and have, as a result, overcome their strong distrust of each other to agree common strategies. European growers, for instance, attended the annual meeting of the International Tobacco Growers Association in November, for the first time ever.
There are about 150,000 tobacco farmers in Europe - mostly in Greece and Italy but also in Spain, France, Portugal, Belgium and even Germany - who receive generous subsidies from the European Commission. But since July there has been talk among commission officials about diversification and reduction of subsidies in coming years. The prospect of losing EU subsidies has now forced them to join other tobacco growers, who do not depend on subsidies, to evolve a joint strategy.
The tobacco mafia is thus pooling resources to resist the extension of anti-smoking legislation to the ‘developing’ world. Muslim countries should follow the South African example and adopt equally strong anti-smoking legislation. It is our lives - now and for generations to come - or the prosperity of the tobacco mafia.
Muslimedia: December 1-15, 1998