Did tobacco firms try to promote smoking in Muslim countries?

Industry specialists were apparently concerned that the World Health Organization was encouraging Islamic leaders to be anti-smoking

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The tobacco industry reportedly attempted to recruit Islamic scholars to sidestep the prohibition on smoking in some Muslim countries, according to The Guardian.

Evidence gleaned from archived industry documents from the 1970s to the late 1990s show that tobacco companies were concerned regarding Islamic traditions and teachings.

According to The Guardian, “in 1996, an internal document from British American Tobacco warned that, because of the spread of ‘extremist views’ from fundamentalists in countries such as Afghanistan, the industry would have to ‘prepare to fight a hurricane’.”

British American Tobaccoe cam up with strategies to counter the supposed threat to sales in countries such as Egypt, Indonesia and Bangladesh, the newspaper added.

Industry specialists were apparently concerned that the World Health Organization was actively encouraging Islamic leaders to be anti-smoking.

A report from tobacco firm Philip Morris in 1985 blamed the WHO: “This ideological development has become a threat to our business because of the interference of the WHO … The WHO has not only joined forces with Moslem fundamentalists who view smoking as evil, but has gone yet further by encouraging religious leaders previously not active anti-smokers to take up the cause,” it said.

“A Moslem who attacks smoking generally speaking would be a threat to existing government as a ‘fundamentalist’ who wishes to return to sharia law,” says one of the archive documents. It adds: “Our invisible defense must be the individualism which Islam allows its believers … smoking and other signs of modern living should encourage governments to a point at which it is possible quietly to suggest their benefits.”

It adds: “With Islam we might ask what other aspects of modern living are similarly open to extremist demands for prohibition under strict interpretation of sharia: motion pictures, television, and art depicting the human being? Use of electronic amplification by muezzin calling from a minaret? The education of women?” the document notes, according to The Guardian report.

In the 20th century, some Islamic jurists announced that tobacco use was makrooh (discouraged) while in some Islamic countries smoking was banned altogether on the grounds that the religion forbids self-intoxication or self-harm.

In 2003, the WHO adopted the Framework Convention on Tobacco Control, being negotiated since 1999, in response to what it said was the “explosive increase in tobacco use.”

Meanwhile, a 2000 report from the Consumer and Regulatory Affairs of British American Tobacco stated: “It appears that the WHO’s efforts to link religion (specifically Islam) with issues surrounding the use of tobacco are bearing fruit … We will need to discuss separately how we might understand and manage this aspect in line with the Cora strategy.”

According to the newspaper, a 1996 British American Tobacco memo suggests identifying “a scholar/scholars, preferably at the Al-Azhar University in Cairo, who we could then brief and enlist as our authoritative advisers/allies and occasionally spokespersons on the issue.

“We agreed that such scholars/authority would need to be paired up with an influential Moslem writer/journalist … such advice would present the most effective and influential opinion able to counter extremist views, which are generally peddled by Islamic fundamentalist preachers largely misinterpreting the Koran … This is an issue to be handled extremely gingerly and sensitively … We have to avoid all possibilities of a backlash.”

According to The Guardian, the tobacco industry is heavily promoting smoking in countries such as Bangladesh and Egypt in advertising directed toward the “not overly devout, ”

Its marketing is generally adapted to the “not overly devout”, says a study led by Professor Mark Petticrew from the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, noted by the newspaper.

The British America Tobacco firm spoke to The Guardian:“This study, which concerns material written nearly 20 years ago, does not represent the views, policies and position of British American Tobacco. We are a global business that holds itself to strict standards of business conduct and corporate governance, manufacturing and marketing our products in accordance with domestic and international laws and observing the cultural and religious beliefs in the 200 countries in which we operate.”

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