British American Tobacco (BAT), one of the world's largest transnational tobacco companies (TTCs), carried out an extensive, multi-pronged strategy to undermine the health policy agenda on secondhand smoke (SHS) in China, finds a new study published in PLoS Medicine.
In 2007, the Chinese Ministry of Health estimated that 540 million Chinese were exposed to SHS, resulting in over 100,000 deaths annually. The only effective way to reduce tobacco smoke exposure indoors is to implement 100% smoke-free environments (alternatives such as ventilation, filtration, and the provision of segregated areas for smokers and nonsmokers are insufficient). Smoke-free policies are proven to decrease overall cigarette consumption, to encourage smokers to quit, and to protect the health of nonsmokers.
Monique Muggli (Mayo Clinic, Rochester, USA) and colleagues analyzed internal corporate documents produced by BAT, the predominant TTC in China, in response to litigation against major cigarette manufacturers. The documents are stored in depositories in Minnesota, USA and Guildford, UK. Among these documents, they found evidence that BAT had attempted to divert attention away from SHS issues toward liver disease prevention by funding the Beijing Liver Foundation (BLF) from its inception in 1997 until at least 2002 (the most recent year that BAT's corporate records are available for public review).
The researchers also found evidence that BAT had promoted a so-called "resocialisation of smoking" effort, using "accommodation efforts", which refer to the TTC strategy of lobbying for separate seating for smokers and nonsmokers and promoting ineffective ventilation and air filtration technology for hospitality venues.
In addition, BAT sought to present the message that tobacco smoke is an insignificant source of air pollution compared with other pollutants, through presentations given to the Chinese tobacco industry and media seminars aimed at Chinese journalists.
Given their findings, the researchers suggest that BLF and other charitable organizations in China must be wary of accepting tobacco money and that measures must be taken to improve the transparency and accountability of these and other public organizations. Policymakers in China, they suggest, must be made aware of how BAT and other TTCs have repeatedly sought to influence health policy in China by focusing attention on the adoption of ineffective air filtration and ventilation systems in hospitality venues rather than the implementation of 100% smoke-free environments.
"Chinese policy makers and the media," say Muggli and colleagues "need to be better informed of BAT's decade-long initiative to communicate misleading messages on the health effects of SHS."
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