Tobacco firms accused of undermining Swiss health policy

Smoking graphic (Jan 2001)

Tobacco companies, including Philip Morris, have been accused of waging a successful campaign to undermine Swiss health measures, in a new report commissioned by the World Health Organisation (WHO).

This content was published on January 11, 2001 minutes

The report, published on Thursday, said the tobacco industry used underhand methods to resist efforts to tighten laws against smoking. It said tobacco firms exploited Swiss traditions of discretion and consensus politics - and lobbied hard to stymie new measures against smoking.

"The tobacco companies have used a multiple array of methods to slow, distort and stop major public health interventions that work against tobacco control," said Derek Yach, the WHO executive director for non-communicable diseases and mental health.

"The impact of that is that we still have an enormous amount of smoking in Switzerland, we have death rates from tobacco that are extremely high, more than 10,000 deaths a year - in a very small population, and we have tobacco control policies that are in fact behind those of many developing countries."

The report added that anti-smoking campaigners underestimated the lengths to which tobacco companies would go to protect their interests, and that more action was needed to uncover and expose their tactics.

"The tobacco industry in Switzerland, as in the... rest of the world, has been using the same strategies... to fight science and control policies," it said. "Their well-organised network enables them to always stay up-to-date and exchange timely information and tested know-how between countries and regions."

The report, by two experts from the University of California in San Francisco, was commissioned by the WHO to assess the tobacco industry's influence over policy making in different countries.

But one tobacco company, Philip Morris, responded to the accusations by telling swissinfo that the report was based on out of date information and was the product of a "polarised environment".

"Nothing in the report substantiates accusations of improper conduct," said Mark Transon, spokesman for Philip Morris which has its global headquarters in Geneva.

He said that while once tobacco companies were at loggerheads with tobacco prevention authorities, they have changed their practices.

"It is true to say that conflict prevailed over consensus...Our goal today is to create a different environment. We want to play a positive role in adressing public policy and regulatory issues such as proper health warnings, our marketing activities and smuggling," Transon told swissinfo.

Switzerland is the first country to be studied after the WHO last year decided to commission research into the extent of tobacco company interference in government policy.

The report's authors, Chung-Yol Lee and Stanton Glantz, say tobacco firms colluded with the hotel and restaurant industry to block a planned law in canton Lucerne to compel restaurants to provide non-smoking sections.

"The cooperation between the tobacco and hospitality industry was very successful in Switzerland in preventing meaningful smoking regulations in restaurants, cafes and hotels...", said the report.

It said tobacco firms had managed to water down smoking restrictions in the work place with behind the scenes lobbying.

And it added that referenda in Switzerland to ban alcohol and tobacco advertising were defeated in 1979 and 1993 largely because of a massive campaign led by tobacco firms and supported by the advertising and media industries.

The Swiss Federal Health Office told swissinfo the findings of the report were not a surprise.

"We have been aware over the past few years that on very many occassions the tobacco industry has moved to curb any effort that we've tried to make in the field of tobacco prevention," said Ueli Locher, deputy director of the health office.

Switzerland has one of the least stringent tobacco control regimes in the developed world. Few restaurants have non-smoking areas, and the tobacco excise tax - at 50 per cent - is one of the lowest in Europe.

"The laws governing tobacco products, their marketing and sales, are weak and have little practical effect on the tobacco industry," the report said. "There is no meaningful protection of non-smokers from toxic chemicals in second-hand smoke, in public places or work places."

The report said that the number of smokers in Switzerland has also been rising in recent years. In 1997, an estimated 33 per cent of the population smoked, up from 31 per cent in 1992.

It singled out the tobacco multinational, Philip Morris, whose European headquarters are based in Switzerland, saying: "As early as 1989, Philip Morris identified Switzerland as a key battleground in Europe."


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