John Oliver Takes Down Big Tobacco | Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids
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John Oliver Takes Down Big Tobacco

February 18, 2015

The big tobacco companies proclaim loudly and often that they have changed and are now responsible corporate citizens.

But it took just 18 minutes for political satirist John Oliver to rip those claims to shreds and show how Philip Morris International and other tobacco companies target kids around the world and bully countries that try to save lives.

On this week’s episode of his hit HBO show Last Week Tonight, Oliver showed how tobacco companies have gone after low- and middle-income countries as they faced growing restrictions and declining smoking rates in the United States and other wealthier countries.

Their tactics include marketing campaigns that target youth and the abuse of trade agreements and costly lawsuits to intimidate countries and deter them from enacting strong measures to reduce tobacco use. Specific examples:

  • Philip Morris International is conducting a global marketing campaign – called “Be Marlboro” – that uses themes and images sure to appeal to youth. The ads feature attractive young people falling in love, playing music, partying and taking risks. A report issued last year by the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids and other public health groups exposed the campaign, which has come under fire in several countries, and called on Philip Morris to end it.

  • Philip Morris and other tobacco companies have fought nations’ efforts to enact strong tobacco control measures, such as large, graphic health warnings, by challenging these measures as violations of trade agreements. The industry’s lawsuits and threatening letters are often directed at small countries such as Uruguay and Togo that cannot afford the costs of defending themselves.

As Oliver joked, “At this point, it’s safe to say that if you live in an apartment with two other people and you ask any of them to please smoke outside, you can look forward to a letter from a tobacco company very soon.”

At the end of the program, Oliver introduced Jeff the Diseased Lung as the new face of Big Tobacco. Jeff is already on bus stops in Uruguay and t-shirts in Togo.

John Oliver’s smackdown of Big Tobacco is hilarious. But it is also thoroughly researched and fact-checked. And it makes a very serious point about an industry and its products that will kill one billion people worldwide this century unless countries take strong action now.

It deserves a serious response from countries around the world. Governments should enact proven measures to reduce tobacco use as required by the international tobacco control treaty, the World Health Organization Framework Convention on Tobacco Control. These measures include higher tobacco taxes; comprehensive smoke-free laws; large, graphic health warnings; and bans on tobacco advertising, promotions and sponsorships.

It is also critical that the U.S. and other countries ensure that trade agreements protect nations’ rights to enact effective tobacco control measures, starting with the Trans-Pacific Partnership agreement now being negotiated.