People have died from tobacco-related diseases since the opening of the first FCTC working group on 28 October 1999.
- November 23, 2011
A year ago, the Brazilian agency that regulates tobacco, ANVISA, proposed restrictions on tobacco additives and advertising at point of sale (POS). That provoked the tobacco industry into action. It organised groups including bar and restaurant associations to protest the proposals via mass media campaigns.
Soon after, the Ministry of Finance proposed to fast-track a bill on price and tax measures. Seeing an opportunity, the industry used its influence with members of Congress to add amendments to the Finance bill that would weaken the ANVISA regulations, along with other tobacco control measures.
In the following interview, ACT-Brazil Director Paula Johns, a member of the FCA Board, describes the current situation.
What is the current status of the bill?
The Bill passed the Senate on Tuesday night. We managed to get several senators to say that they would vote in favour of the bill only as long as there was a guarantee from the president that she would veto the part allowing for corporate advertising. It was amazing to see our arguments delivered on the floor one after the other by a dozen of senators.
The text is much better than in the beginning. There are still some problems but we decided to support the text as it is because there are still some important measures. The one about taxes and prices is the most important; there is also one about smoke-free at the federal level.
There are some negative aspects also, and since it was the industry that applied pressure to have the amendments, there are some tricky things. For example, there is a ban on advertising at POS; on the other hand you have an extension to permit the exhibition of cigarette packs at POS. Basically it means that you won’t have warning labels at POS and you can have a whole wall with colourful cigarette packs.
Also they added an amendment to permit corporate sponsorship of events – and the tobacco industry in Brazil does a lot of that – although it wasn’t in the original bill. However, what the bill contains now on smoke-free is positive, because if it passes we will have a federal law.
We supported the law as it was to pass because if it didn’t pass we risked losing all the good things: it would have to go back to the lower house (of Congress) and there the pressure (from the tobacco industry) is much stronger.
At the same time we are working to get a presidential veto on the paragraph that deals with corporate advertising.
Brazil seemed to be a leader in tobacco control. What happened to produce such a regressive bill?
The industry has been attacking ANVISA since they proposed the regulations a year ago. At the same time we were monitoring the progress of the Ministry of Finance’s bill on price and tax measures; we have a good dialogue with the Ministry of Finance
But there have been lots of weird things with our Minister of Health. There have been occasions when his commitment to tobacco control was very unclear; he said bad things about tobacco control to the press but he had to take them back because of pressure from us.
The first was when we started the discussion about taxes and prices: he said ‘this is not the most important thing to do because there is the issue of smuggling and contraband’ – he was just repeating the discourse of the industry. But he had to take that statement back because of criticism.
Then what happened?
I met the Ministry of Health in person in New York in September. I congratulated him for supporting price and tax measures and I asked him about the federal smoke-free law. He said ‘it’s all settled. There’s going to be an amendment in the bill on price and taxes; there’s going to be an amendment about warning labels and the industry has agreed with that’.
A red light went off in my head. And then I got the text of the proposed amendments. It was like it was written by the industry – literally. We know how they write, we know their arguments, it was written by them. But the problem was it wasn’t written by them – the document came from the computer of an assistant to the Minister of Health.
What action did you take?
I sent that document to the press; it was in the newspapers the next day. The minister wanted to kill me, his assistant as well. But it was good: it generated a huge discussion and we continued to urge them to drop the amendment. The Minister of Finance was agreeing with us.
It was covered in the major daily newspapers, the major weekly magazines. But the Minister continued to deny and eventually he said the amendment had come from another deputy, who didn’t disagree.
What are the lessons learned from this incident?
One is the importance of working with the media. If it wasn’t for the things written in the newspapers I don’t think we’d be able to make so many changes.
One of the crucial things is the ability we had to get support from coalition members inside and outside the country.
Also, you have people who are paid by the industry: no matter what types of arguments you make they will never change their positions. But you have lots of people, legislators, who just repeat things that they hear, so we need to be present because the industry is present. They make stupid arguments but they sound reasonable.
You need to build partnerships and alliances with legislators. Most of the things I discovered in this incident were through the alliances that I have inside the government.