Cigarettes in ash trayIndustry documents studied by a team led by Professor Mark Petticrew from the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine, show that tobacco companies have perceived Islam as a threat to its attempts to sell more tobacco products in emerging markets in Asia.
They reveal how the industry attempted to frame anti-smoking views in Islamic countries as fundamentalist and fanatical while lawyers helped develop theological arguments in favour of smoking.
According to the study, published in American Journal of Public Health, these findings will help tobacco control advocates to implement culturally appropriate measures to control tobacco use in Islamic countries.
The research team searched the entire Legacy Tobacco Documents Library and analysed 251 documents, dating from the 1970s to 2011, which referred to Islamic views and actions related to tobacco control, and industry actions related to them.
The study found that the tobacco industry perceived Islamic opposition to smoking as a threat to its business from the 1970s onwards. For example, a 1996 British American Tobacco document described the “Islamic threat” as “a real danger to the industry. This is dependent upon the source of the threat, the divisions within Islam and among Moslems and above all the rapidly emerging fundamentalist influence in Islam, as for instance witnessed in Afghanistan, Iran or Algeria…this amounts to us having to prepare to fight a hurricane”.
Tactics used to counter the perceived threat included framing Islamic objections to tobacco use as extremism, monitoring debates on Islam and tobacco, recruitment of Islamic scholars and leaders as consultants to adapt messages and ultimately portray smoking as acceptable. Industry lawyers meanwhile sought to reinterpret the Qu’ran to suit tobacco industry ends.
The study authors make a series of recommendations for tobacco control efforts based on the findings. These include using positive messaging to emphasise the health benefits of non-smoking rather than negative messages of forbidding certain behaviours; countering associations that tobacco use is an expression of freedom, especially among females, with clear health messages and warnings; and promoting shared positions by multi faith communities on the harmful effects of tobacco use on health to shift attention from individual religious beliefs.
Mark Petticrew, Professor of Public Health Evaluation at the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine, said: “The tobacco industry is rapidly developing its markets in many countries with a large Muslim population, which have a high prevalence of smoking – even though there is a consensus among Muslim scholars that smoking is prohibited by Islam.
“Despite this, our study shows that the tobacco industry has framed anti-smoking views in Islamic countries as fundamentalist and fanatical, and has attempted to recruit Islamic consultants to portray smoking as acceptable.
“Tobacco industry lawyers working for Philip Morris even helped develop theological arguments in favour of smoking. As a former US Food and Drug Agency Commissioner, David Kessler, once said, this really is an industry that thought it could buy almost anybody.”
Co-author Professor Kelley Lee, based at Simon Fraser University, said: “This paper provides further evidence of how the tobacco industry has sought to frame public policy debates in ways that, not only further its commercial interests, but undermine the efforts of public health communities worldwide seeking to reduce the almost six million deaths caused by tobacco use.”
The study’s other co-authors were Rima Nakkash (American University, Beirut) and Haider Ali (Open University Business School).
This research was funded in part by the National Cancer Institute, US National Institutes of Health.
M.Petticrew, K.Lee, R.Nakkash, H.Ali: “Fighting a hurricane”: Efforts by the tobacco industry to counter the perceived threat of Islam to the Tobacco industry. American Journal of Public Health
Image: Cigarettes in ash tray. Credit: iStockphoto.com/Professor25
London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine