In an effort to delay public smoking bans in China, the British American Tobacco Company (BAT) spread the message that secondhand smoke and smoking-related diseases were not as harmful as commonly perceived, according to a new report.
The New York Times reported Dec. 29 that BAT has downplayed the effects of secondhand smoke since 1995, saying that China should focus instead on decreasing air pollution and liver disease.
The researchers said that a series of internal documents from BAT showed that the company strategized to push smoking-related health issues away from the forefront of Chinese politics. Only one-third of Chinese citizens are aware of secondhand-smoke health risks, and than 100,000 deaths in China annually are attributed to secondhand smoke.
The report also found that BAT provided training sessions that taught representatives from Chinese tobacco companies how to sell the concept that there is not enough scientific data to prove the harmful effects of secondhand smoke.
The company encouraged the use of air filtration and ventilation systems in public places rather than enforcing smoking bans, according to the report's authors.
“Everyone and their mother wants a piece of the Chinese market,” said lead author Monique Muggli of the Mayo Clinic. “What was unique about China was BAT's efforts to train the local industry in China on their playbook, causing controversy and doubt around secondhand smoke where none really existed, and targeting the local tobacco industry, which is government owned.”
“[BAT] welcomes sensible regulation” and consistently seeks “to engage with regulators to work towards balanced legal frameworks,” BAT officials said in a statement. “British American Tobacco is very clear about the risks to health associated with smoking.”
The report was published online in the December 2008 issue of the journal PLoS Medicine.