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Ambassadors and the tobacco industry

10 January 2022

Big Tobacco has been lobbying ambassadors to help speak up for its business and also engaging ambassadors of a different kind – brand ambassadors – to promote its products to escape being penalized by tobacco control laws.

In 2020, the Japanese Ambassador to Malaysia endorsed the handing over of vehicles to the Inspector General of Police in a CSR activity sponsored by JTI to tackle tobacco smuggling.  Nine Perodua Myvi cars and two Kawasaki KLX motorcycles were given to the police for crime prevention activities. Meanwhile, Japan Tobacco International (JTI) opposed government efforts to increase minimum price of cigarettes citing smuggling will worsen. Malaysia has not had a tobacco tax increase since 2015.

British American Tobacco (BAT) has been exposed to have lobbied the High Commissioners of Bangladesh and Pakistan to intervene on its behalf to undermine new pictorial health warnings implementation in both countries. JTI is also known to have lobbied the Japanese Ambassador in Bangladesh and the embassy in Cambodia to intervene on its behalf to oppose tobacco production during lockdown and oppose pictorial health warning respectively.

It can be embarrassing for countries when their ambassadors are exposed for promoting tobacco because Parties to the WHO FCTC agreed in 2014 that their diplomatic missions will abide by Article 5.3 and protect their public health from commercial and vested interests. The UK government has a guidance for their diplomatic missions not to promote tobacco. But tobacco companies have no qualms using diplomatic missions to intervene on their behalf in tobacco control policy.

Former Ambassadors are also using their prestigious titles and former positions to further business interests. The US-ASEAN Business Council (the Council) conducts annual business missions and meets with Presidents/ Prime Ministers and Cabinet ministers of the ASEAN countries. These business trips are usually co-led by the Council’s President & CEO, Ambassador Ted Osius, and the Council’s Senior Vice President and Regional Managing Director, Ambassador Michael Michalak. They were both former US Ambassadors to Vietnam. The US has the Doggett Amendment (1997) and the Executive Order (EO13193) that prohibit their executive offices from promoting tobacco overseas.

The Council’s annual business trips involving these Ambassadors also included PMI in the delegation. PMI is the Vice Chair of the Council for Indonesia, the Philippines and Singapore.

To lure young people to tobacco products, companies employ their own ‘brand ambassadors’. A brand ambassador is a spokesperson for the brand who deploys a range of promotional strategies to raise the brand’s public profile through events, on social media, blogging and vlogging and in commercials. This role involves this tobacco representative to have a public presence.

As brands ambassadors, these influencers seem to be able to escape tobacco advertising bans and enforcement officers are unable to stop them. Even Facebook, which has a policy to prohibit tobacco advertising on its platform, cannot stop these influencers.

Big Tobacco, while claiming they don’t want youth to smoke and even want to quit cigarettes altogether, have brand ambassadors to promote their cigarettes. These cigarette brand ambassadors are operating in so many countries including the ASEAN region, in CambodiaIndonesiaPhilippinesSingapore and Vietnam.

Cigarettes still form the bulk of Big Tobacco’s profits. By engaging with politically appointed ambassadors and hiring brand ambassadors to promote its business, it will continue to oppose tobacco control measures as it increases cigarette sales.

In 2022, the tobacco industry will sell about 545 billion sticks of cigarettes in the ASEAN region (Table 1).

Table 1: Projected cigarette stick sales in 2022

Cambodia 8 billion
Indonesia 302 billion
Lao PDR 3 billion
Malaysia 6 billion
Myanmar 19 billion
Philippines 65 billion
Singapore 2 billion
Thailand 32 billion
Vietnam 108 billion

The Tobacco Atlas ASEAN Region

WHO FCTC Article 13 requires countries to implement a comprehensive ban on tobacco advertising, promotions and sponsorship which includes the brand ambassador type of marketing tactics by Big Tobacco. CSR activities are a form of sponsorship and hence should be banned. Article 5.3 Guidelines calls on governments to require the tobacco companies to provide information on their marketing budgets. To date only Thailand has such a requirement in place.