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Big Tobacco takes on Islam in effort to promote smoking

Dene Moore
National Affairs Contributor
Daily Brew

A vendor of locally grown tobacco smokes a cigarette in a market in Banda Aceh

A vendor of locally grown tobacco smokes a cigarette in a market in Banda Aceh June 24, 2014. Indonesia, home to the pungent "kretek" clove and tobacco cigarette, has joined the ranks of countries across the world enforcing stricter anti-tobacco laws to deter smoking, especially among youth. But tobacco companies appeared undeterred by the potential impact on sales in Southeast Asia's largest economy, where one in every five people smokes. REUTERS/Junaidi Hanafiah (INDONESIA - Tags: HEALTH)

Big tobacco has been waging a theological war to promote smoking in the Muslim world, targeting women in particular, says a news study.

A review of internal tobacco industry documents going back decades has uncovered a campaign to link abstinence from tobacco to extremism, says the international study co-authored in Canada.

The campaign went so far as to hire lawyers to make theological arguments against Islamic leaders opposed to tobacco use.

“The paper shows how the industry has sought to distort and misinterpret the cultural beliefs of these communities, and to reinterpret them to serve the industry’s interests.  All to sell a product that kills half of its customers,” Kelley Lee, a professor of health sciences at Simon Fraser University and co-author of the study, tells Yahoo Canada News.

Public health campaigns against smoking have been very successful in western countries. But as smoking rates have declined in North America and Europe, cigarette manufacturers have increasingly turned to low- and middle-income countries for growth.

The researchers combed through decades worth of internal industry documents held at the Legacy Tobacco Documents Library at the University of California, San Francisco, and the Guildford Depository near London, England. These libraries house documents that surfaced in court cases brought by 46 U.S. states against seven major tobacco industry organizations.

As far back as 1979, British American Tobacco was concerned about Islamic dogma, according to a company memo unearthed by Lee and his colleagues.

“The rise of militant Islam poses serious problems. Smoking, and the consumption of alcohol, are forbidden under this creed,” the memo says.

The companies worked to frame tobacco control as part of religious extremism, under a plan called Project Winnipeg, after the 1983 World Conference on Smoking and Health held in the Manitoba capital.

Efforts included the Canadian Tobacco Manufacturers’ Council reaching out to the Islamic Studies Department at McGill University.

“Through consultants and tobacco lawyers, the industry sought to reinterpret the Qu’ran to suit its needs,” says the study published in the latest edition of the American Journal of Public Health.

Another document suggest linking smoking to other aspects of modern living eschewed by extremists, including the education of women.

“In Islamic countries in the Middle East and Asia, rapid social change has led transnational tobacco companies to draw on themes related to liberty and independence to market to women, reminiscent of traditional marketing campaigns during the 20th century,” the study says.

Lee, who began the research as part of the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine and continued after joining SFU in 2011, says smoking rates in Muslim countries have risen steadily.

There are many factors at play, he says.

“But we know that there has been aggressive marketing by big tobacco across the Islamic world at the same time that smoking has been declared ‘haraam,’ forbidden.”

The industry documents include tactics such as cigarette smuggling schemes, industry interference in health policy, industry efforts to skew health research, Lee says.

Still, he and his colleagues were shocked by the Islamic offensive.

“The phrase ‘nothing sacred’ comes to mind here,” he says in an email exchange.

The International Tobacco Growers’ Association did not immediately respond to an email request for comment.

Other cultural and religious groups have also been targeted, including the Jewish and Catholic communities, Lee says.

“Wherever there are profits to be made, the tobacco companies have tried to sell their products,” he says.

According to The Lancet medical journal, China remains the largest market for tobacco products. And while smoking rates are declining in the western world, the opposite is true in countries like Indonesia where an estimated 60 per cent of the male population smokes regularly.

More than $9.17 billion was spent on tobacco advertising and promotion in 2012, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says, representing more than $25 million per day or $1 million spent per hour.

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