On Sunday’s episode of Last Week Tonight, host John Oliver took an in-depth look at how the tobacco industry uses expensive lawsuits and byzantine international trade agreements to keep countries from pushing for stronger regulation on cigarettes. But rather than just call Big Tobacco out for its bad behavior, Oliver also offered a helpful solution that might make all sides happy.
See, the big problem is that while a growing number of countries want to force larger and more graphic warnings on cigarette packaging, the tobacco industry has fought back in court.
Here in the U.S., where the percentage of smokers has dropped from around 42% to 18% in the last 50 years, Big Tobacco took its fight against proposed warning labels all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court.
And even when a country does successfully beat the industry, Big Tobacco finds another way to sue. Oliver points to the way in which Philip Morris International recently shifted control of its Australian cigarette operations to Hong Kong-based Philip Morris Asia. Then, about nine months later, PM Asia sued the Australian government through an international court, saying the government’s plan to force all cigarettes into plain non-branded packaging violated a decades-old trade agreement with Hong Kong.
Additionally, the tobacco industry used its leverage to nudge other countries to file complaints with the World Trade Organization against Australia, claiming that the new packaging rules would hurt their tobacco exports to Australia — even though at least one of those countries, Ukraine, exports no tobacco to Australia to begin with.
“Ukraine is inserting themselves into something they have nothing to do with,” says Oliver. “They’re taking the Kanye West approach to international trade disputes.”
And it’s even easier to pick on the smaller countries that try to regulate tobacco, like Uruguay, which had to seek outside funding from the World Health Organization and former NYC Mayor Michael Bloomberg to pay for its legal battle with Big Tobacco.
“On the scale of how sh*tty that has got to be, that’s barely higher than borrowing money from your ex-girlfriend’s current boyfriend’s stepdad,” explains Oliver.
When one of the world’s poorest countries, the African nation of Togo, attempted to add graphic images to cigarette boxes as an additional warning for the country’s substantial illiterate population, PMI threatened the country with an “incalculable amount of international trade litigation.”
In a letter to the Togo government, PMI cited a High Court of Australia decision, claiming that it concluded “that plain packaging constitutes a substantial privation of property rights.”
But there’s one huge omission from that statement — it fails to mention that this was not the conclusion of the majority of the court, but of the lone dissenting justice in the case.
In fact, the justices in the case cited by PMI had labeled the tobacco industry arguments as “delusive” and “unreal and synthetic,” and compelled the plaintiff tobacco companies to pay some of the Australian government’s legal costs.
“This letter is bullsh*t,” says Oliver. “And yet Togo, justifiably terrified by threats of billion-dollar settlements, back down from a public health law that many wanted.”
The list goes on and on, with other countries like the Solomon Islands facing similar threats from tobacco companies for daring to consider tougher regulations.
“At this point it’s safe to say that it you live in an apartment with at least two other people and ask one of them to please smoke outside, you can look forward to a letter from a tobacco company very soon,” jokes Oliver.
“It’s clear what each side wants,” he continues. “Countries want to warn their citizens about the health dangers of smoking tobacco. Tobacco companies want to be able to present branded images that they have spent time and money to cultivate.”
“We are offering Jeff to you Philip Morris, to use as you wish,” Oliver explains. “He’s already out there. You just need to claim him. Our lawyers, unlike yours, will not sue!”
Oliver is calling for public support to help get Jeff’s face out there with the #jeffwecan hashtag on Twitter and by suggesting that maybe if people upload images of Jeff to Google+ and tag him with “Marlboro,” it might push dear old Jeff to the top of the Google image search results for the cigarette brand.