John Oliver rightly spotlights bully tobacco industry

On Feb. 15, John Oliver turned his attention to the tobacco industry on his show Last Week Tonight with John Oliver.

The host criticized major corporations, particularly Philip Morris International and British American Tobacco, for threatening to sue smaller nations trying to pass public health laws that would help reduce smoking rates. These laws include “plain packaging laws” that replace logos and other trademarks on cigarette packaging with clear warnings and graphic illustrations of health problems that arise from smoking tobacco.

In 2011, Australia introduced plain packaging laws that banned company branding from tobacco packages and included what Oliver could only refer to as “upsetting photos.” The photos depict a toe-tag on a corpse, a cancerous mouth, a “nightmarish” eyeball, and a diseased lung. The purpose of these images is to deter people from purchasing or using tobacco products, and with good reason. According to the World Health Organization, nearly six million people die annually from tobacco-related causes.

Total consumption of tobacco and cigarettes in Australia fell to record lows since these laws were implemented. To achieve this feat, the Australian government had to deal with a number of lawsuits from tobacco companies: two sued Australia’s highest court in an attempt to stop plain packaging laws. In 2012, the high court tossed the case and required the companies to pay all legal costs associated with the case.

However, rather than abiding by the court’s decision, the tobacco companies have aggressively tried to prevent smaller countries from adopting legislation similar to Austrailia’s. At least four countries — Namibia, Gabon, Togo, and Uganda — have received warnings from large tobacco corporations. Philip Morris threatened to sue Togo, one of the 10 poorest countries on earth, after the country’s government required packs of cigarettes to include written warnings about the health risks of smoking. Only 40 percent of Togo’s adult population is literate. Furthermore, Philip Morris had net revenues of over $80 billion in 2013, while Togo’s GDP estimated just a little over $4 billion the same year.

This form of intimidation by the tobacco industry toward smaller countries is unacceptable. As smoking rates in these nations increase and become major public health concerns, John Oliver’s initiative to improve the situation is both admirable and just.