Trevor Hancock: How do tobacco execs sleep at night?

For many years, I have wondered how the leadership of the tobacco industry — the members of the boards of directors and senior executives who work to maintain or expand the sales of their lethal products — sleep at night? And I also wonder why they are still accepted as members of our community and national organizations, why they are not ostracized, made unwelcome in civilized society.

Because, let’s face it, these are not nice people; they are peddling a drug and working to get young people socialized to smoking and addicted to nicotine, in part by moving into other areas that relate to and feed into their products — vaping and marijuana. Yet they know full well their products, when used as intended, result in millions of deaths — the World Health Organization estimates tobacco kills about eight million people annually, worldwide.

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The tobacco industry also causes thousands of deaths and a vast burden of disease in Canada; I noted in a November 2018 column that tobacco causes 17 to 18 per cent of all deaths in Canada, around 40,000 to 45,000 people annually. This is almost 10 times the number of deaths from opioid drugs, which was 4,588 in 2018, according to an August Canadian government report.

This should hardly come as news to the tobacco-industry leadership. The evidence on the lethality of their product is not in doubt, and in fact has been clear for two generations, since the U.S. Surgeon General’s report in 1964. So they can hardly claim they do not know that tobacco kills and sickens. Yet they continue to produce and market it.

In a 2014 report marking the 50th anniversary of that landmark report, the U.S. Surgeon General was blunt: “The tobacco epidemic was initiated and has been sustained by the aggressive strategies of the tobacco industry, which has deliberately misled the public on the risks of smoking cigarettes.”

The report went on to say: “The industry used its influence to thwart public health action at all levels and fraudulently misled the public on many issues, including whether lower-yield cigarettes conveyed less risk to health and whether exposure to second-hand smoke harmed non-smokers. Undoubtedly, these actions slowed progress in tobacco control.”

So why do we tolerate the presence of the tobacco-industry leadership in society and in our community organizations? Why are they not treated as social pariahs? Do we really want people like this on the boards of our local community organisations, service clubs and charities? Should they be welcome in your church, temple, synagogue or mosque?

But we need to look beyond the senior management of the tobacco industry: Who is investing in this lethal industry, in the hope of making money? Well, indirectly, we all are, through the Canada Pension Plan. Many of us are probably also invested in tobacco through our work or private pension funds and RRSPs.

The CPP reports that as of March 31 it had more than $1 billion directly invested in large tobacco companies, including $581 million in Phillip Morris International, $479 million in the Altria Group, which “holds diversified positions across tobacco, alcohol and cannabis,” including Philip Morris USA as well as 35 per cent of the vaping company Juul, and $118 million in Japan Tobacco.

The good news is that it seems you and I are no longer directly invested through the CPP in British American Tobacco, Imperial Tobacco or Reynolds, which was the case in 2017. However, it is likely that the CPP has much more invested in the tobacco industry through investment portfolios in which it has holdings.

But why is the CPP investing in this unacceptable industry? Doubtless they and the tobacco industry leadership will tell you this is a legal product, and they are just doing their job — but this is not simply an issue of legality, it’s an issue of morality. It’s about producing and marketing a product that is known to be lethal, creating a new generation of users and addicts, causing almost 10 times as many deaths as the opioids epidemic that we are so concerned about.

So how do the leaders of this industry and those that invest in it live with themselves? How do they sleep at night?

Dr. Trevor Hancock is a retired professor and senior scholar at the University of Victoria’s School of Public Health and Social Policy.

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