In the 19th century, British opium profiteers were persistent in their efforts to penetrate untapped Chinese markets. Despite a legal prohibition on opium, the British bribed officials, planned intricate smuggling plots and even advertised free samples of the drug to consolidate a user base. When Chinese officials eventually decided that the opium illegally smuggled by British merchants was becoming a truly disruptive social force, they deliberately destroyed 1,400 tons of it in an attempt to thwart the advance of joint-venture companies and their profit-driven behavior.
Instead of disrupting trade relations as isolationist Chinese government officials hoped, however, such actions prompted the beginning of war and eventually the reestablishment of a fierce opium trade. At one point in the early 1900s, 27 percent of China’s male population was addicted to opium. Today, the Opium Wars and the subsequent unequal treaties are taught in world history classes as case studies of imperialism and the unjust economic exploitation of states that were militarily inferior to the British Empire.
A century later, the modus operandi of businesses that sell addictive products has not transformed dramatically. A combination of globalization, the spread of belief in human rights and the internationalization of health standards would seemingly make the unfair flow of highly addictive and dangerous narcotics from the developed to the developing world unfathomable today. Yet the successor of exploitative enterprises like the East India Company lives on in the modern-day tobacco industry.
In the developed world, Big Tobacco’s profits have dropped precipitously. Research about the health risks of smoking reached a consensus within the scientific community, and public opinion followed. Aggressive tactics to indoctrinate American children with the byproducts of cigarette smoking — black lungs, social alienation and general uncleanliness — have encouraged youth to tightly associate cigarettes with the vile. Those who choose to smoke are frowned upon for polluting social life with secondhand smoke. Furthermore, regulations forbidding smoking in public areas and workplaces have greatly increased the inconvenience smokers face. High taxes on cigarettes in virtually every state are popular and have considerably decreased the incentive for first-time smokers to purchase a pack. All in all, in the past half century, the proportion of American adults who smoke cigarettes has almost halved, and consumption is dropping three percent annually.
Those who see such statistics or experience interacting with fewer smokers may faultily draw the conclusion that cigarette consumption is on the decline worldwide. In fact, between 2001 and 2013, tobacco sales worldwide rose seven percent. As regulations have proliferated, tobacco companies have slowly withdrawn from developed countries, shifting their energy towards developing countries, especially those with low per-capita income and inept governments. It is estimated that 77 percent of deaths related to tobacco-induced illnesses will take place in the developing world from 2005-2030. The British Medical Journal forewarned of the encroachment of transnational tobacco companies in the developing world as the act of “exporting tobacco slavery.”
Central to the strategy of tobacco companies is to present a concerted attack against government attempts to implement regulations and public health measures through potent marketing campaigns. Because its economic interests are concentrated while a country’s public health interests are diffuse, tobacco companies are able to allocate a large portion of their budget towards thwarting regulation efforts while encountering relatively little pushback. Most alarmingly, tobacco companies have adopted an explicit strategy for attack: They have singled out the most impoverished, resourceless communities to victimize. A study published in the Bull Health World Organ journal in 2015, the incidence of tobacco advertisements was 81 times higher in low-income countries. Unsurprisingly, research has documented the direct relationship between exposure to cigarette advertising and uptake in smoking. Moreover, the corruption endemic in many developing countries has encouraged the tobacco industry to cut deals with political insiders. In 2015, BBC conducted quality investigative journalism that revealed that British American Tobacco (BAT) bribed political representatives in Burundi, Rwanda and the Comoros Islands.
The best international effort so far has been the World Health Organization’s Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (FCTC), which affirms that health is a priority over commercial interests and sets universal regulations that all signatories agree to adopt. This past November, an updated program dubbed FCTC 2030 made available financial support and logistical assistance in implementing regulatory policies, such as smoke-free workplaces and tobacco taxes. These are steps in the right direction.
The amount of annual deaths from cigarettes is projected to rise to seven million in developing countries by 2025. The spread of the lucrative business of killing the dispossessed is an overlooked tragedy of the commons and an example of capitalism and globalization at its worst. Developed countries that have successfully vanquished the tobacco industry must not now look the other way when it comes to preventing exploitative firms from running amok elsewhere. International efforts cannot continue to be disregarded as fruitless but should be lauded and funded further. Such undertakings provide the best hope for a smoke-free future.
Contact Jasmine Liu at jliu98 ‘at’ stanford.edu.