Tobacco Undermines the UN Sustainable Development Goals

Tobacco jeopardises the achievement of these 17 goals. Yet tobacco companies have enthusiastically adopted them, hoping to influence them from behind the scenes.

The health damage caused by tobacco is now well known. But tobacco also has an impact on many other areas of society. In particular, it endangers the achievement of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), 17 targets adopted in 2015 by UN member states and expected to be achieved by 2030.  

"Tobacco has a deleterious effect on all three pillars of the SDGs, economic, social and environmental," says Adriana Blanco Marquizo, who heads the secretariat of the WHO Framework Convention on Tobacco Control. She cites the example of economic growth. "Every year, tobacco costs us more than $1 billion in health costs and lost productivity, as some workers fall ill or die at a young age, while others have to take time off to care for a loved one whose health has been affected."

The environment is another victim. "Tobacco products harm nature from the beginning to the end of their life cycle, whether it is by promoting the advancement of deserts, contaminating water, depleting soil or taking up land that could be used to grow food," add Ms. Marquizo.

This is why tobacco is one of only two consumer goods explicitly mentioned in the SDGs, along with alcohol. Goal 3 calls for better regulation of the industry and the implementation of control measures under the WHO Framework Convention on Tobacco Control.

However, the tobacco industry – made up of five multinationals (Philip Morris International (PMI), British American Tobacco (BAT), Japan Tobacco International (JTI), Imperial Brands and China National Tobacco Corporation), which share 80% of the market – does not see it that way. Achieving the SDGs is based on building partnerships," says Ms. Marquizo. But the tobacco industry has stepped into the breach, presenting itself as part of the solution rather than part of the problem and demanding a seat at the table in the hope of influencing the negotiations to its advantage.

To support these efforts, the industry has begun to reference the SDGs in its social responsibility reports. Geneva-based JTI, for example, has initiated water projects in Bangladesh on behalf of the SDGs. 

PMI, based in Lausanne, is committed to food security in Mozambique, Malawi and Tanzania, ostensibly to promote the SDGs. At the same time, the firm has been lobbying foreign ministries in several countries not to include anti-smoking measures in the 17 goals, ahead of their adoption.

This is by no means the first time the tobacco industry has deployed diversionary tactics. "It started with filters, presented as a solution to prevent harmful substances from getting into smokers' lungs, followed by ‘light’ formulations, intended to convince people about to give up smoking not to give it up," recalls Ms. Marquizo.

More recently, the tobacco industry has approached the umbrella organisations representing tobacco farmers or small shops selling cigarettes with hidden funding, in order to use them as Trojan horses to defend their interests vis-à-vis the governments that consult them. “In my country, Uruguay, the association representing small traders intervened to oppose a new law prohibiting them from including tobacco products in their displays, arguing that this would have a negative impact on their turnover," notes Ms. Marquizo. But this is not the case at all, because cigarettes represent a very small part of their income. The tobacco industry had given them this line.

Tobacco companies have also created their own front companies to influence public discourse and anti-smoking measures. The Geneva-based ECLT Foundation (Eliminating Child Labour in Tobacco Growing), funded by BAT, claims to be working to eradicate child labour on tobacco farms, but it has no binding mechanism to ensure that commitments made are met. It has also become involved in the UN decision-making process through its participation in the Global Compact, an initiative that encourages companies to adopt a socially responsible attitude.

Tracit, another organisation affiliated with the Global Compact and funded by the tobacco industry, claims to want to fight against illicit cigarette trafficking. In reality, however, it is focusing its efforts on preventing the adoption of laws that could curb these flows, particularly in Latin America.

Also, the Codentify cigarette tracking system, developed by PMI and made available to other cigarette companies free of charge, is said to suffer from serious deficiencies that make it ineffective in stopping smuggling. It's a short step from that to an attempt to sabotage efforts to combat cigarette smuggling.

In recent years, the tobacco industry has shifted its tactics slightly, focusing on new nicotine products – electronic cigarettes or heated tobacco products – that are coming onto the market. The tobacco companies' discourse has evolved: they are trying to portray themselves as an innovative industry through a new generation of products that they describe as being less harmful to health, even though their risk profile has not yet been established with certainty," notes Ms. Marquizo. At the same time, they promise to phase out traditional cigarettes, but without setting a deadline."

One of the spearheads of this new strategy, the Smoke-Free Foundation, was formed in 2017 under the leadership of PMI, which funds it entirely. It claims to support research into new nicotine products. "This entity has been trying for some years to intervene in global discussions on anti-smoking measures by presenting itself as a neutral actor," says Ms. Marquizo.