A new concept

| December 1, 2008

The Global Tobacco Networking Forum debuts in Rio de Janeiro.

By George Gay

There are other ways of looking at situations than the one that first comes to mind, or the one that is presented to you, gift wrapped. And this was one of the ideas behind Tobacco Reporter’s Global Networking Forum 08, which was held at the Intercontinental Hotel, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, on Oct. 15-17.

The forum was a horizontal conference at which all the delegates were potential speakers and all the speakers were delegates. There were set subjects and moderators to keep the debates jogging along where that was necessary, but by and large the sessions were ad hoc and participants were able to discuss the unthinkable if they so wanted.

The forum was an experiment—and a brave experiment given that it was put on in Brazil, where, to my knowledge, no large-scale, global tobacco conference or exhibition had previously been staged successfully. As with most experiments, it needed fine tuning, but it was successful in its primary aim of extending the debate. Some of the moderators reported up to 100 percent participation from the attendees at the various sessions.

There was variation, of course. One of the sessions at which the moderator was clearly much better informed about the received wisdom on the subject than were the other participants turned into a mini conference. The moderator spoke to the subject and the others listened. But even here there was a difference because, when the moderator stopped speaking, the questions came thicker and faster than is the case at less intimate gatherings.

At other sessions, the moderator did little more than introduce the subject before sitting down and becoming one of a number of expert speakers.

If I seem to be avoiding the subject, or subjects, here, it is because the forum was staged on the understanding that what was said would not be reported. This presumably allowed participants to feel freer to assert their opinions and to ask probing questions.

And in Rio, this freedom was probably underlined because most of the major manufacturers were either not represented or were little represented. Their presence was missed at times because only they could answer certain questions, but to some extent this gap was filled by people who had previously worked for those manufacturers.

Questions certainly arose and some of them could not have been answered even by the representatives of major manufacturers. In fact, it became clear that people were looking to find out the answers to questions that had been bothering them for some time. Breaking—or perhaps bruising—the rules of reporting just once more, I was pleased somebody asked a question that has been bothering me for some time and about which I wrote a year ago: are covert marks on cigarette packs worth applying as part of the fight against counterfeit cigarettes? Clearly, they might help you identify and count counterfeit products already manufactured, and they might win brownie points from governments, but do they prevent counterfeiting?

If only I could let you know the answer that was given to that question, but, as explained, reporting restrictions will not allow me to do so. You’ll just have to attend the next forum.

What tobacco industry?

The Rio forum, and especially the absence of the major manufacturers, raised one enormous question. Is there such a thing as the “tobacco industry” in the sense that it comprises a united grouping of businesses linked by common interests and, generally, traveling in the same direction? The answer is, I think, no. From “regulation” to “plain packaging” and from “tobacco harm reduction” to the “illicit trade” (all subjects covered by the forum), different segments of the industry have different outlooks, different concerns and different drivers.

Given the absence in Rio of the major manufacturers it was reasonable to reflect, also, on whether or not the presence on the world stage of a number of huge tobacco companies is a positive thing for the tobacco industry as a whole. Certainly, on the face of it the answer would have to be no. These companies have tended to break the links between tobacco manufacturing and the communities into which the former, small, family-owned businesses were embedded, and thereby to lose whatever support those businesses might have had in their communities. And the major manufacturers have provided the “Big Tobacco” target at which the anti-tobacco, anti-smoker groupings have found it easy to aim.

Perhaps there is another way of looking at this issue.

In one way, the absence of many of the major manufacturers was a major loss. The tobacco industry is being forced to address some fundamental issues that inevitably challenge our notions about what it is to consume tobacco, and unless those of us who work within the tobacco industry have discussed these new ideas and understood them, how can we communicate them to those in the outer dark?

Let me give you an example. How do we define smoking? How do we know if someone is smoking? I guess that if there were any doubt—and I grant that normally there is not—one way to test this would be a sort of Turing Test for artificial exhalation. You stick the person in an airline toilet and wait for the alarm to go off. But supposing somebody could light a cigarette and then inhale and exhale tobacco smoke without setting the alarm off—would the person still be deemed to be smoking?

I ask this question because, as I understand it, by the time this article is published, a product will have appeared on the market that would allow a smoker to consume a cigarette without people around her being aware that she was smoking or being in any way affected by that smoke. And so the question arises as to what our response should be to this product. I cannot help feeling that the industry should try to present a modicum of solidarity for once by having a response to the naysayers ready before the naysayers know what is happening.

Clearly, the naysayers will complain that this is a device designed to allow people to smoke in pubs and even in airline toilets without being discovered. And of course, the body blow will be that this is a product designed so that children can enjoy a few drags under the covers as daddy is reading them a bedtime story.

In fact, it is a device that, providing it works as it is said to work, would allow adult smokers to smoke at home without annoying or, as the antis would have it, harming, the nonsmokers in the family.

Irrational behavior

Harm reduction was the subject of one of the sessions during the forum, as was illicit trade, with which I started this report. To my mind, there are connections between these two subjects, some of which have to do with the fact that the “industry” responses to them often seem to make little sense.

Let me stretch a point or two. The industry is basically opposed to the illicit trade in tobacco products. In fact, the major manufacturers become quite indignant about this trade and often put forward what to me is the very dubious and, as far as I can tell, unsubstantiated argument that tobacco products made by illicit manufacturers may contain non-tobacco-related materials that would make these products more harmful than those made by the regulated industry. In fact, I cannot help thinking that by buying illicit cigarettes and thereby making sure that they spend less on their cigarettes, consumers are actually protecting their health—given that poverty is a major cause of ill health.

So it would be interesting to know what is the major manufacturers’ response to the fact that tobacco users in places such as the U.K. are starting to consume snus, which is banned there and which consumers can obtain only through the illicit trade? Would they condemn them for buying illicit products or support them for trying to instigate a little harm reduction?

In both instances of illicit trade, I would have to say that the consumers are acting rationally while governments and those that support the government positions are acting irrationally.

It could be argued, too, that it is irrational for the industry to try to work with governments and organizations such as the World Health Organization in respect of industry regulation, which was another of the subjects discussed at the forum. Often, it would surely be worthwhile letting governments get on with it, because without input from the industry, they will bring in policies that will implode under the weight of the misinformation on which they are based.

Take plain packaging. I shouldn’t mention this, but the introduction of plain packaging and the banning of certain cigarette manufacturing ingredients were seen by one person at the forum as being the worst threats posed to the industry.

I cannot accept this, partly because, as previously noted, there is no “industry.” The banning of certain additives will hurt some manufacturers and some markets more than others. And the introduction of plain packaging will affect some manufacturers, along with some board suppliers and some converters, more than others. But these issues are not about the end of tobacco consumption.

If both of these policies were brought in it would simply raise the industry’s game—make it even more innovative than it currently is.

And both of these initiatives would have their upsides. What would consumers make of cigarettes that had no additives and whose packaging was dirty gray apart from the health warning? Well, no additives mean healthier smoking, right? Otherwise the government wouldn’t make the manufacturers remove those ingredients. And gray packaging means no bleach, which is better for the environment, right?

The major point here is that the threat posed by each of these proposals is limited. They will not prevent people smoking licit products and will probably make them more likely to smoke illicit products. To my way of thinking, smoking bans are much more worrisome because they have a tendency of slipping out of their workplace homeland into private accommodation—hotels, apartments … And a ban is a ban.

Shrugging off the challenges

It is perhaps amazing that with all of the negative issues discussed at the forum, there was a remarkable level of optimism among the participants. One moderator seemed to sum up the mood when he said with a shrug, “We’ve faced crises before.”

Of course, when I say there was an amazing level of optimism, I am talking about the atmosphere at the sessions I attended. Because of the way the forum was structured, it was necessary to make choices, and there were a lot of sessions that I would like to have attended but could not because they clashed with others: cost management, tobacco regulations, future automation in the tobacco industry, sustainability, NTRM, dark markets and how to rebuild old machines for the future.

And there was one other session that I didn’t attend; it was on leadership. I have to say that I avoided this one because I was told that participants were divided up into small groups that discussed the subject and then came together with the other groups to deliberate on what each had come up with. It all sounded a little bit too structured for my liking. But now I regret not having attended. After all, leadership is probably the key issue at the moment.

In my view, if there is one positive to come out of the whirlwind currently blowing through the old economic order, it is that our “leaders” have lost the right to the deference that some of them seemed to think was theirs by right. From here on, if they want respect, they have to earn it. Right? Politicians, economists, bankers and businessmen have been caught out subscribing wholesale to the most ludicrously fragile systems, and they—both the people and the systems—need to be swept away and, eventually, replaced with different people and systems.

Dream on: there’s no chance of that happening. These “leaders” have built an overarching system designed to keep them in place no matter in what buffoonery they become involved—from the faintly absurd, once-ubiquitous mission statement that they required their employees to worship to the massively destructive game of pass the parcel that bankers have been playing with contagious debt.

The system is designed so that if there is a failure, those in power do all that they can to justify what brought that failure about and take it to new heights of absurdity. The banking system is on the verge of collapsing under the weight of its own greed, so the answer is to pump more money into it. It never seems to occur to those in power that perhaps it might be an idea to go back to square one and start rebuilding on ground that is more solid. That would require admitting irresponsibility.

And outside of the leadership there seems to be a fear of the unknown that has become a phobia. In the U.K. in recent years, if anybody ever suggested that the pay of businessmen should be capped, the cry went up that the country would lose those business leaders to overseas companies, and that would be enough to put an end to the idea. This theory was never put to the test despite the fact that one of the mantras of many of these business people was that people should not fear change. In fact, the most rational response would have been to offer these leaders a lift to the airport. Right now, most of them would be hard put to find a job driving the airport car.

But if you really want to get a sense of the massive scale of the failure of our leaders, all you have to do is to return to the start of this report. The tobacco business, in which the tobacco industry has a share and in which governments have a massive share, is starting to sag under the weight of an illicit trade clearly caused by grasping governments applying ludicrous levels of excise tax. So what is the solution sought by governments and supported by many tobacco manufacturers? The lowering of taxes? No, stiffer penalties for those caught in possession of illicit tobacco products.

This is madness. Stiffer penalties imply more police, more court time, more jails; all of which have to be paid for by higher taxes and social breakdown.

But the consensus of our leaders is to increase penalties. They are locked into a cycle of failure because they are largely divorced from the real world. They don’t understand how ordinary people think and they won’t unless they get out more.

They should attend the next forum—on the understanding that they are just participants like everybody else.

 

 

 

 

 

Category: Breaking News, GTNF

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