Tobacco companies battle religious edicts and opposition to smoking in Muslim markets by connecting anti-smoking views to extremism. This strategy reminds me of the way in which the “father of Public Relations,” Edward Bernays, targeted women by presenting cigarettes as “torches of freedom.”
The tobacco industry has been waging a sort of religious war for decades, recruiting Islamic scholars and crafting theological arguments to counter a feared Muslim opposition to smoking, a new, Canadian co-authored study suggests.
The companies’ tactics have included courting Muslim experts at McGill University and portraying religious objections to tobacco as a form of extremism – at odds with freedom and modernism generally, the analysis of years of industry documents reveals.
“The industry has sought to distort and misinterpret the cultural beliefs of these communities, and to reinterpret them to serve the industry’s interests,” charges Kelley Lee, a global health-policy expert at Vancouver’s Simon Fraser University and one of the authors of the study. “All to sell a product that kills half of its customers.”
With smoking on the decline in the West, Muslim countries in the Middle East and southeast Asia are among the most important markets for the sector, notes Prof. Lee.
Yet for at least three decades, companies have fretted about the menace posed by Muslim ideology in those places, memos and reports unearthed by Prof. Lee and her colleagues indicate. A 1996 British American Tobacco (BAT) document, for instance, describes the “Islamic threat,” including rising fundamentalism, as a “real danger” to the industry.
“This amounts to us having to prepare to fight a hurricane,” the memo warns.
An industry-linked law firm’s presentation proposed a theological retort to such pressures. The Koran does not actually prohibit use of tobacco, and “making rules beyond what Allah has allowed is a sin in itself,” the firm advised.
The study suggests Muslim thinking on the topic has changed over the years, but because of health reasons, not growing conservativism. Muslim jurists in the past generally considered tobacco use neutral, but as its risks became better known, some proclaimed it “markrooh” – discouraged – or even “haram” – prohibited, the paper says.
The material outlined in the study was drawn from the Legacy Tobacco Documents Library, a database of 15 million internal industry documents filed during lawsuits by U.S. states, most before 1998.
While the library did not provide access to the most recent documents, evidence suggests the companies are still trying to influence Muslim religious currents, said Prof. Lee, formerly with the U.K.’s London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine. A recent ad for Gauloises cigarettes in Qatar, for instance, depicts an Arab-looking woman without a headscarf, the tagline saying “Freedom Always.”
Bodies like the World Health Organization need to refute the industry-promoted idea that tobacco use in Muslim countries is an expression of escape from religious constraints, especially for women, the authors suggest.
Whether because of its religious-based strategies or not, the industry does appear to have thrived in many Muslim countries. While BAT sold fewer cigarettes worldwide in 2014 than the year before, the number increased in six countries, including Muslim Bangladesh, Iran, Turkey and Pakistan, a company report said.
The internal industry documents showed that companies first recognized in the 1970s that Islam posed a threat to expansion in such regions – a “formidable obstacle to the industry,” as one 1991 memo said.
The industry began years ago depicting that kind of stance as extremist, and suggested that even the WHO was part of the movement. The UN agency has “joined forces with Muslim fundamentalists who view smoking as evil,” complained one Philip Morris document. A BAT report in 2000 suggested the WHO’s efforts to link smoking and Islam had borne fruit and needed to be “managed.”
A tobacco lobbyist told Philip Morris in 1985 to portray anti-smoking Muslims as fundamentalists, and suggest their strict reading of Sharia law would lead to other curbs on modern living.