Category Archives: John Oliver

A look back at the World Health Organization’s groundbreaking tobacco control treaty


A very interesting article from Foreign Affairs on something I knew very little about, honestly — the World Health Organization’s groundbreaking Framework Convention for Tobacco Control, a treaty signed by most of the nations on Earth.

The FCTC was the first-ever WHO worldwide treaty. The agency had gone 50 years without using its treaty-making power and when it did, it chose to direct its power at the growth of tobacco products in international markets.

This is important because of greater awareness in the West, much higher tobacco taxes and more regulations banning smoking in workplaces, the smoking rate has dropped through most Western countries. However, the tobacco industry has adapted by turning its energies toward emerging markets in India, Africa, South America and Southeast Asia.

The FCTC came on the heels on the release of the so-called “cigarette papers,” millions of millions of internal memos and studies from the tobacco industry dating back to the 1950s which became public knowledge through the discovery process in various lawsuits against Big Tobacco. The treaty provides assistance to smaller, developing countries to battle the worldwide Big Tobacco industry in putting together tobacco control programs. The treaty, which took three years to negotiate and was first ratified by 40 countries in 2005. It has since been ratified by 180 countries representing over 90 percent of the people on Earth.

The FCTC gives smaller, poorer countries information and resources from richer countries as those nations face uphill battles with Big Tobacco in trying to implement laws regarding tobacco packaging, marketing and use in public areas. These battles have been talked by a lot by John Oliver and others with his “Jeff the Diseased Lung” campaign. Big Tobacco, oftentimes with assistance from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce as its hammer, has fought tiny countries such as Togo and Uruguay (and not so tiny Australia) whenever those countries try to pass laws controlling tobacco marketing and packaging.

Some of the basic things the FCTC helps smaller nations with include some of the same things that have worked in the West to reduce tobacco use:

•    Adopt tax and price measures to reduce tobacco consumption;
•    Ban tobacco advertising, promotion and sponsorship;
•    Create smoke-free work and public spaces;
•    Put prominent health warnings on tobacco packages;
•    Combat illicit trade in tobacco products.

Ukraine bails on ridiculous challenge to Australian plain packaging laws

Plain packaging

Here is an update on John Oliver’s excellent rant about the tactics of Big Tobacco in fighting regulations against their products worldwide.

This is complicated and I’m not 100 percent confident I will explain it right, but I will try:

Ukraine had been convinced (no doubt by Big Tobacco lobbying efforts) to file a World Trade Organization challenge against Australia over Australia’s plain packaging laws. Per Australian law, tobacco companies cannot put their logos on cigarette packs. Only graphic anti-smoking warnings are allowed and a small amount of text saying what the actual brand of the cigarettes are.

Tobacco companies filed suit and recently, the Australian Supreme Court ruled in favour of the government. So, Big Tobacco (or should I say Big World Tobacco) lost that round.

They grow wheat in Ukraine, not tobacco

However, Big World Tobacco also went the WTO route (John Oliver did a great piece on this), saying Australia’s strict rules affected trade with other countries and violated international trade agreements. For some mystifying reason, Ukraine got involved, even though Ukraine is not a major tobacco-growing nation and does not export any tobacco to Australia. (Like I said, I smell money — LOTS of money — exchanging hands here between tobacco interests and Ukrainian government officials.)

From the Reuters article:

Health campaigners were perplexed by Ukraine’s WTO suit because it is also a party to the U.N.’s Framework Convention on Tobacco Control and was one of the countries that backed guidelines on how to implement the treaty, including enforcing plain packaging.

British American Tobacco has previously said it was helping meet Ukraine’s legal costs in the WTO case against Australia. Individual companies cannot pursue litigation via the WTO.

Well, there you go: BAT was paying Ukraine’s legal fees.

The issue isn’t over, but Ukraine was the biggest country involved in fighting the Australian plain packaging rules. Other nations challenging the plain packaging rules are Cuba, Honduras, Indonesia and the Dominican Republic (all tobacco-growing nations).



Michael Bloomberg, Bill Gates announce $4 million fund to help small countries fight Big Tobacco

Gates speaks as Bloomberg listens during a news conference announcing joint efforts to combat the global tobacco epidemic in New York

John Oliver will be glad to hear this. (Thank you Orcas for the tip on this story).

Bill Gates and Michael Bloomberg announced this week a $4 million fund to help small countries around the world with their legal battles against Big Tobacco. Gates is contributing through the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and Bloomberg through the Bloomberg Foundation.

Oliver has been pounding away on this issue on his HBO show, “Last Week Tonight.” When small countries attempt to control tobacco branding and tobacco advertising, they get sued by Big Tobacco into submission though world trade agreement laws and courts into dropping their proposals. This has happened in Uruguay, Togo, Ireland and especially Australia (OK, not so small of a country, but it’s been a bloody legal battle there.).

In this quote from a Guardian article about the announcement, Bill Gates said:

“Country leaders who are trying to protect their citizens from the harms of tobacco should not be deterred by threats of costly legal challenges from huge tobacco companies. Australia won its first case, which sends a strong message. But smaller, developing countries don’t have the same resources. That’s why we are supporting the Anti-Tobacco Trade Litigation Fund with Bloomberg Philanthropies.”

Added Margaret Chan, director general of the World Health Organization:

“In an ominous trend, in some countries the battle between tobacco and health has moved into the courts. Governments wishing to protect their citizens through larger pictorial warnings on cigarette packs or by introducing plain packaging are being intimidated by industry’s threats of lengthy and costly litigation. This is an effort to deprive governments of their sovereign right to legislate in the public interest. We will push back hard.”

I hope $4 million is just a start, because I suspect the international Big Tobacco companies have a vastly bigger legal war chest than that. Anyway, it’s great that people are recognizing the problem that Oliver has exposed on his show.

The tobacco industry has been aggressively trying to expand to international markets, since smoking has dropped so dramatically in the West. The industry particularly salivates over Africa, India and Southeast Asia, where laws and governments are weaker and the smoking rates higher than in the West. (The industry would expand into China bigtime if China allowed it, but the tobacco market there is state-controlled.)

Bloomberg is a noted anti-smoking advocate … you could even call him a zealot (I know some New Yorkers would). As the mayor of New York, he oversaw a number of restrictions on smoking (strict smoking bans not only in bars and restaurants, but in parks) and tax increases for cigarettes. He could be accused of taking his health campaign too far into “nanny state” territory because he also tried to ban large sodas in New York, a move that was ruled illegal by the courts. His heart is in the right place, at least.



John Oliver’s Jeff the Diseased Lung takes off

john oliver2

John Oliver of “Last Week Tonight” did a follow-up story on his show’s creation of “Jeff the Diseased Lung.”

Jeff the Diseased Lung is a trademark designed by Oliver and his show for the tobacco industry which is fighting efforts in smaller countries around the world to limit tobacco industry advertising and branding. Oliver’s show took out billboards in Uruguay and sent out t-shirts to Togo starring Jeff the Diseased lung.

Since, then, Jeff and the Twitter hastag #jeffwecan have taken off far beyond what Oliver expected. Also, there are a number of YouTube videos made by Jeff the Diseased Lung fans. Here’s one, here’s two, here’s a third. The first two are great, but that third one was … WTH?

Someone even made their own Jeff the Diseased Lung costume in Mexico City.

Oliver’s epic rant against the tobacco industry, more than 18 minutes long, savaged Big Tobacco over its efforts to harass and intimidate smaller countries that are trying to control tobacco advertising. Australia is one country that now requires simple plain packaging on tobacco products, along with graphic warnings.

As Oliver points out in last week’s piece, Ireland is another country that has joined Australia in requiring plain packaging. Hey, I wrote about that weeks ago, I beat John to the punch. He finds an incredible argument in Philip Morris’ lawsuit against Ireland: Philip Morris argued that, “a dance is only meaningful when it is danced, as a trademark is only meaningful when used.”

As Oliver retorts: “You know you have a pretty weak legal argument when it sounds like a rejected @#$%ing Jewel lyric.”



John Oliver — Meet “Jeff the Diseased Lung” takedown of tobacco companies

jeff the diseased lung

This is really brilliant. John Oliver on HBO dedicated an 18-minute segment to ripping into the tobacco companies for attacking small nations trying to implement anti-tobacco laws.

Oliver makes some good points, some I knew about, others I didn’t. We all know the tobacco industry is in full-fledged decline in the West because frankly people are tired of watching their loved ones die of COPD and lung cancer … and governments are tired of the billions of dollars of medical costs draining their economies. The smoking rate in the West is less than one-half of what it was 50 years ago.

Well, the tobacco industry has responded by aggressively marketing its products overseas, especially in Africa and Asia. These poorer nations as a rule don’t have strong regulations regarding tobacco and smoking rates are exceedingly high in some of these countries (According to Oliver, Indonesia’s smoking rate is 67 percent among men.).

Oliver’s takedown begins with Australia, which has been one of the most aggressive nations in the world in combating tobacco. Australia passed a law requiring plain packaging, which Philip Morris International, obviously a subsidiary of Philip Morris, took to court. The case went all the way to the Australian Supreme Court, which ruled in favour of the government.

PMI then filed a trademark lawsuit against Australia to the World Court, saying Australia’s refusal to allow tobacco branding violated a trade agreement with Hong Kong, where PMI is headquartered.

Oliver also brings up lawsuits filed by tobacco companies against tiny countries like Uruguay, Togo and the Solomon Islands for attempting to restrict tobacco branding.

jeff the diseased lung billboard
Actual Last Week with John Oliver “Jeff the Diseased Lung” billboard in Uruguay,


Oliver’s show, Last Week with John Oliver, then came up with a brilliant idea. Create a tobacco brand for these poor countries trying to limit tobacco branding. And they came up with Jeff the Diseased Lung.

Last Week with John Oliver then took out billboard ads in Uruguay and sent t-shirts to Togo with the Jeff the Diseased Lung logo, telling the tobacco companies, ‘it’s all yours. The brand is there, you can use it, our lawyers won’t sue you.”

Very subversive and very funny. (Hopefully YouTube doesn’t take this down after a week.)