Photo: Cherry Holt, Pixabay, CC0

Tobacco companies Philip Morris and Japan Tobacco fought a South African bill on regulating smoking products by leaning on disinformation campaigns.

Photo: Cherry Holt, Pixabay, CC0

In May 2018, South Africa’s Ministry of Health published a draft bill named the Control of Tobacco Products and Electronic Delivery Systems Bill. This proposed bill sought to introduce plain packaging for cigarettes, remove designated smoking areas in restaurants, ban outdoor smoking in public areas, ban retailers from displaying cigarettes and cigarette vending machines, and regulate e-cigarettes as tobacco products.[1]

Cherry-picking science

Following the publication of the draft bill, Philip Morris International (PMI) sponsored a media workshop in Johannesburg, following a similar series of sessions in Kenya, Ivory Coast and Mali.[2] The workshops targeted journalists and hyped the message that e-cigarettes and heated tobacco products are a ‘healthier’ alternative to smoking.[3]

The Philip Morris Foundation for a smoke-free world, which the World Health Organization (WHO) has deemed as untrustworthy, provided a large part of the scientific evidence used to back up these claims.[4] One particular academic provided some of the facts shared by PMI, notably asserting that e-cigarettes are 95-99% healthier than traditional cigarettes. He could not, however, provide any evidence to back up his claim.[5]

On the other hand, a comprehensive study published by researchers from the University of California San Francisco indicates that “while e-cigarettes deliver lower levels of carcinogens than conventional cigarettes, they also expose users to high levels of ultrafine particles and other toxins that have been linked to increased cardiovascular and non-cancer lung diseases risks – which account for more than half of all smoking-caused deaths”.[6] This research result contradicts the argument that e-cigarettes are a healthier alternative for traditional smoking means.

The right to smoke

In July 2018, a large-scale campaign named #HandsOffMyChoices was launched in order to mobilise the public to oppose the new bill.[7] It’s flagship message was that the bill for the Control of Tobacco Products and Electronic Delivery Systems would take away people’s basic human right in terms of freedom of choice. The campaign highlighted potential costs such as “it will negatively impact retailers” and “it will increase illicit trade”, urging the public to protest against the bill.[8]

The campaign’s main funder was no other than Japan Tobacco International (JTI), a major player in South Africa’s tobacco industry. JTI insisted on the potential negative health impacts that plain packaging could have on South African citizens. Most notably, it argued that Australia had seen its downward trend on tobacco consumption flatten since the introduction of plain packaging for tobacco products.[9] In contrast, multiple academic studies have shown causal positive effects of plain packaging, indicating that JTI’s argument was not representative of the available scientific literature.[10]

Seeking profits at the cost of public health

In August 2018, JTI disseminated a paid radio advert nationally with the slogan, “What if your loved one got put in jail because they smoke? It is just one-step of the bill controlling your lifestyle choices. Join us in saying #HandOffMyChoices.”[11] This message was promoted throughout South Africa – suggesting that, under the proposed bill, it was likely that smokers would go to prison for smoking in general. However, infringements of the law were only foreseen for smoking in explicitly forbidden places, including in public areas and in cars that included passengers under the age of 18.

The main punishments handed out for these behaviours were fines, making an actual imprisonment for smoking a highly unlikely event.[12] Those details were not, however, outlined by the #HandsOffMyChoice campaign. Yet- in its response to a review-request made by the Mind the Gap research team,[13] JTI declared that its campaign aimed to inform the public about the bill and the right of the public to comment on the latter.

Both PMI’s questionable measures to promote the healthiness of its alternative smoking means, as well as JTI’s elaborate information campaign against the new regulation, strongly suggest that these two tobacco companies were fighting the implementation of the new South African Bill for their own interests.

[1] South African Department of Health, “Draft Control of Tobacco Products and Electronic Delivery Systems Bill,” Government Gazette 41617, May 9, 2018.

[2] Philip Morris International, “Philip Morris South Africa’s Managing Director Hugo Marcelo Nico, speaks about harm reduction in Africa Reporters Workshop held in South Africa,” August 28, 2018, (accessed October 23, 2019); “Tobacco industry finds unlikely allies in fight against regulation,” Medical Brief, August 22, 2018, https://www.medicalbrie (accessed October 23, 2019).

[3] Masutane Modjadji and Kerry Cullinan, “Professionals co-opted to back tobacco giants,” Daily Maverick, August 19, 2018, (accessed October 23, 2019).

[4] N. Peer, “Current strategies are inadequate to curb the rise of tobacco use in Africa,” South African Medical Journal 108, no. 7 (July 2018): 551-56, (accessed October 23, 2019).

[5] Masutane Modjadji, “Tobacco industry campaigns against new bill,” Health-e News, July 24, 2018, (accessed October 23, 2019).

[6] Stanton A. Glantz and David W. Bareham, “E-Cigarettes: Use, Effects on Smoking, Risks, and Policy Implications,” Annual Review on Public Health 39, no. 1 (April 2018): 215, (accessed 23 October, 2019); “Tobacco industry finds unlikely allies in fight against regulation.”

[7] Japan Tobacco International, “Handsoffmychoice,” (accessed October 23, 2019); “Tobacco industry finds unlikely allies in fight against regulation.”

[8] Japan Tobacco International.

[9] Australian Institute of Health and Welfare, National Drug Strategy Household Survey 2016: detailed findings (Canberra: Australian Institute of Health and Welfare, 2016), 153., (accessed October 30, 2019).

[10] Nicole Hughes, Monika Arora, and Nathan Grills, “Perceptions and impact of plain packaging of tobacco products in low and middle income countries, middle to upper income countries and low-income settings in high-income countries: a systematic review of the literature,” BMJ Open 6, no. 3 (March 2016), e010391: 1-10, (accessed October 30, 2019); Collin N. Smith and others, “Plain packaging of cigarettes: do we have sufficient evidence?,” Risk Management and Healthcare Policy 8 (April 2015): 21-30, (accessed October 30, 2019).

[11] Modjadji and Cullinan; Nomvelo Chalumbira, “South Africa’s parliament considers tougher anti-smoking bill,” Reuters, 15 August 2018, (October 23, 2019).

[12] South African Department of Health.

[13] JTI. “RE: Review announcement case description JTI”. October 8, 2019.