Once a lawyer, always a lawyer; as our CSO was doing some late-night Web research in the wee hours of this morning, his eyes were drawn to the intriguing case of Philip Morris versus the Oriental Republic of Uruguay. For those unfamiliar with the matter, the essence of the litigation is that one of the key players of Big Tobacco is suing a small, tidy South American country for passing laws which the Swiss-registered company believes constitute a violation of bilateral trade. These laws – drafted with compliance with World Health Organisation best practice in mind – include the obfuscation of 80% of the surface area of a packet of cigarettes with graphic health warnings against the dangers of tobacco consumption.
Since this case is sub judice, we at Mediolana do not wish to comment on its specifics. But we believe that this case is highly revealing in the context of what it says about public health policy and broader mores in modern societies:
1. Equality Before the Law? Thankfully, we live in an age where knowledge of at least some of the negative consequences of tobacco consumption – including multiple forms of cancer and premature death – is widespread globally; it makes perfect sense for states, acting according to both national and international consensuses, to take reasonable and proportionate measures to protect their citizens – particularly minors and other vulnerable groups – from these. However, sometimes we do wonder whether this is being done in an entirely equitable or intellectually honest manner: presuming tobacco companies are legitimate legal and commercial entities, then at some point they will be entitled to assert certain basic rights to marketing, branding and self-presentation. That these should be qualified by law is self-evident, but the thorny question of extent is all-important. Conversely, the trend of powerful multinationals throwing armies of symbolic analysts into legislative battles of attrition in jurisdictions of limited resources is a profoundly concerning one.
2. Cultural Selectivity. As toxic as cigarettes indubitably are, we at Mediolana find it amazing that some other products readily and legally available across the world are seemingly deemed unworthy of regulatory interest. For example, pollution from petrol- or diesel-powered cars is the fastest-growing cause of death, accounting for 3,200,000 deaths in 2010 – with well over half of these fatalities occurring in booming Asia. Yet only at the very highest levels of academia and public policy making is anything being done to seriously challenge the automobile-based development model, let alone compel car manufacturers to introduce electric models (electric vehicle technology has been available since the mid-1800s) with greater rapidity; incredibly, suburbanising cars are advertised – without hesitation or qualification – as symbols of freedom.
3. Smarter Approaches? There is definitely a place for blunt, clear warnings on products of significant toxicity – but one-size-fits-all solutions are rarely as effective as more targeted approaches. Younger demographics may develop a certain immunity to messages about a possible slow and distant (albeit painful) death; warnings of more immediate relevance, such as those pertaining to expense (tobacco and alcohol purchases equate to extra taxes), personal aesthetics (alcohol wrecks skin tone and texture dramatically, tobacco more subtly), or sexual capacity (alcohol again) may be far more effective in reducing consumption of chemically toxic products.