The State-tobacco industry collusion is responsible for the deaths of millions | opinion | Hindustan Times
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The State-tobacco industry collusion is responsible for the deaths of millions

The tobacco industry’s tactics have now been copied to perfection by many other industries. The oil and coal industries actively rubbish the evidence on how its products are fuelling climate change, which in turn is leading to dramatic changes in food and water security and the spread of infectious diseases. The alcohol industry continues to target young people who are most vulnerable to the addictive and harmful consequences of drinking.

opinion Updated: May 27, 2017 21:57 IST
In 1979, a secret memo from the tobacco industry was revealed to the public; in it were contained these chilling words: “Doubt is our product since it is the best means of competing with the ‘body of fact’ that exists in the mind of the general public
In 1979, a secret memo from the tobacco industry was revealed to the public; in it were contained these chilling words: “Doubt is our product since it is the best means of competing with the ‘body of fact’ that exists in the mind of the general public(AFP)

In the feverish climate of fake news in which we find ourselves these days, considered by many as an existential threat to the foundations of democracy, it is becoming impossible for an average reader to distinguish the authentic stuff from the paid variety. The latter is, of course, just a euphemism for advertising, but much more dangerous given that the sole purpose of this “news” may be intended to sell harmful goods for the enrichment of corporations.

There can be little argument over who claims the crown of emperor of such deceit in modern times: On the occasion of World No Tobacco Day, this dubious honour must go to the tobacco industry. We now have reams of evidence testifying to the strenuous efforts this industry took to hide the compelling truth that their product killed its users.

In 1979, a secret memo from the tobacco industry was revealed to the public; in it were contained these chilling words: “Doubt is our product since it is the best means of competing with the ‘body of fact’ that exists in the mind of the general public.” It took decades of advocacy by scientists to finally get the landmark World Health Organization Framework Convention on Tobacco Control passed in 2005. However, by then, tens of millions of lives had been lost to tobacco, the vast majority of which could have been saved had governments not colluded with the tobacco industry.

The tobacco industry’s tactics have now been copied to perfection by many other industries. The oil and coal industries actively rubbish the evidence on how its products are fuelling climate change, which in turn is leading to dramatic changes in food and water security and the spread of infectious diseases. The alcohol industry continues to target young people who are most vulnerable to the addictive and harmful consequences of drinking.

The fertiliser industry peddles pesticides so innocuously that one would never guess that they are the leading method of suicide in our country and that their toxic residues taint our eco-system. The food and beverages industry sells products which poison our bodies with salt, sugar and the wrong kinds of fats, directly contributing to epidemics of diabetes and heart disease.

John Yudkin, a British professor of nutrition, had sounded the alarm on sugar 40 years ago; yet, his warnings were ignored and his reputation demolished by a cabal of nutritionists and policy makers supported by the food industry.

All these industries have mastered the art on how to deceive, distract and confuse through a combination of lobbyists, support to political parties, trolling of the scientists who produce evidence they don’t like, generously funding those who promote their message, surrogate advertising through innocuous products such as clothes and ‘lifestyle’ goods, and becoming part of a conglomerate of companies which include those which may sell perfectly legitimate goods to mask their lethal products.

Some libertarians may argue that it is finally up to the consumer to make independent inquiries about the products he chooses to buy. I think this might be perfectly reasonable in this dystopian free-market world of ours if we were talking about relatively harmless things like a child’s rattle or lacy underwear. But where we must draw the line, without any compromise, is when the products are damaging to the health of individuals and their communities.

To do so, not only should every one of us be vigilant and fearless to call out and shame those industries whose products kill us every day, but demand that the State take appropriate steps to protect us all from these emperors of deceit.

Vikram Patel works with the Harvard Medical School and the Public Health Foundation of India

The views expressed are personal