Do something good for society with the tobacco industry’s exorbitant profits

Thursday, 01 December 2022

The sale of cigarettes is incredibly profitable for tobacco giants. In 2018, the six biggest tobacco producers made a tidy sum of 55 billion dollars in profit. That's more than Coca-Cola, Pepsico, Nestlé, Mondelez, Fedex, General Mills (including Häagen-Dazs), Starbucks, Heineken and Carlsberg put together.

Profit margins in the tobacco industry are significantly higher than in other sectors. In 2021, PMI (Philip Morris International) had an operating profit margin of 49.8% in the EU. BAT (British American Tobacco) achieved 43.4% that year. The other companies mentioned previously achieved 15-16% on average.

Tobacco giants excel when it comes to internalising profits and externalising costs to users and societies, who have to bear the burden of both the healthcare expenses and the litter and environmental costs caused by smoking.

It’s high time to go about this differently! As far as the problem of cigarette butts goes, there will be a shift of responsibility in January. Thanks to the European Single Use of Plastics guideline, tobacco producers will have to pay a portion of the cost of the collection, removal and processing of cigarette butts in public spaces. With regard to the costs of smoking prevention and support for quitting, the Alliantie voor een Rookvrije Samenleving (Belgian Alliance for a Non-Smoking Society) urges our governments to also initiate a shift of responsibility.

Smoking is not a lifestyle choice. It’s the opposite of freedom. Smokers are addicted, often beginning in their teenage years. In the process, their brains are hijacked by nicotine. For outsiders and non-smokers, it’s often difficult to understand how a smoking habit that persists this long can restrict freedom to act.

This is why it’s necessary to commit much more strongly to prevention efforts to keep our youth free from nicotine. Much more must be done to help smokers escape their tobacco addiction. We cannot allow the tobacco industry to control the ‘tobacco endgame’. The industry has a different agenda: maximising profit, not public health.

In times of austerity and inflation, when families, companies and governments struggle with costs, we call for a new levy on tobacco producers. It is they who deny smokers a fulfilling and healthy life, burden employers with sick employees and higher rates of absence, and unnecessarily drain healthcare resources. More must be done about this, urgently, and the finances needed for these efforts should come from those who cause the problems. Isn’t that fair? According to the Stichting tegen Kanker’s (Belgian Foundation against Cancer) latest smoking survey, 71% of Belgians are in agreement with this idea.

Suzanne Gabriels, expert tobacco control at Stichting tegen Kanker

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