The link between tobacco and poverty

Here’s an example of a story picked up by reading outside the normal news channels. In Indonesia, the second highest contributing factor in poverty is tobacco. Cigarette smoking contributed 10% to the poverty rate, according to the country’s National Development Planning Board. The biggest contributor is rice consumption.

Indonesia has the cheapest cigarettes in the world, and two-thirds of men smoke. Because the government depends on tax revenues, it has been reluctant to curb tobacco use, and the industry lobby reliably pushes back on any efforts to raise taxes or restrict advertising. The most popular brands are locally made clove cigarettes, often with no filter. HM Sampoerna is the largest brand, with 35% of the market. It is owned by Philip Morris, the American tobacco giant.

While Indonesia has its share of local companies in the market, this is a recurring theme. Western governments have slowly but eventually tackled the issue of smoking, but there are fat profits to be made elsewhere. Philip Morris and the other multinationals promote smoking around the world and lobby against government action. The British government isn’t shy about supporting ‘business interests’, and last year the Foreign Office was caught lobbying the Bangladeshi government to waive a tax bill that British American Tobacco was contesting.

Two things to say about this: first, tobacco is a global injustice. Big companies are listed on the London and New York stock exchanges, returning profits to countries where smoking is in decline. Shareholders benefit from a product that is known to be harmful and contributes to poverty, and they exploit the fact that the harmful effects of smoking are less understood in poorer countries. Of the big five tobacco companies, one is owned by the Japanese government and one by the Chinese government, so it’s not a ‘west vs the rest’ phenomenon. But both Western and Eastern companies known where future profits lie: Africa has relatively low smoking rates, and is therefore seen as a potential growth market.

Secondly, there’s a wide-open opportunity for action here. If smoking is a factor in poverty rates in Indonesia, then encouraging people to stop smoking would be a big boost to ending poverty. The same will be true elsewhere, in any country or community where there is a culture of smoking, where cigarettes are cheap and advertising makes it attractive. A global campaign against tobacco would improve health, redress injustice, reduce pressure on developing world healthcare systems, and alleviate poverty.

So where’s the campaign? The World Health Organisation gathers statistics and encourages governments to make plans, but it has no popular presence on the ground. Then you’ve got the memorably named Framework Convention Alliance, which tries to coordinate smaller local organisations to apply the WHO’s recommendations. I’ll admit that I know very little about smoking, but I’m not aware of a global anti-smoking NGO. More troubling than my own ignorance, Google isn’t finding me one.

This looks like a job for the Effective Altruism movement. One of their key principles in effective giving is to find high impact interventions that are currently overlooked. The most cited example is worming tablets. I’ve argued that road safety in developing countries is a perfect opportunity. Anti-smoking charities and support for quitting could well be another.

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