Tuesday, 28 February 2012

Selective outrage at hosting of tobacco-sponsored trade conference

New Zealand has seen a row following the decision of Mike Moore's decision to host a tobacco-sponsored trade conference, with New Zealand MPs demanding his dismissal.

The event attracted sponsors Philip Morris, Chevron, Phrma and others, and its organisers, Washington International Trade Association, has other global sponsors, mostly powerful international corporations including Walmart, Microsoft Pfizer, and the US Chamber of Commerce. In other words it is a conference of some of the most powerful multinational business interests in the world. Demanding the dismissal of an ambassador for hosting a conference of such business interests is gesture politics. The rationale was as follows:
"Moore's attendance at this party is a slap in the face for all those who have worked hard to stop the tobacco companies killing thousands of New Zealanders every year, and an insult to those families who have lost loved-ones to the country's most addictive drug."
Isn't this just a little OTT? People work hard in all walks of life, and the business of smoking cessation is elevated as the supreme interest that must trump every other. Or does this work 'stopping tobacco companies killing thousands of people' refer to New Zealand health services, which treat everyone with heart, lung and respiratory conditions whether or not they are smokers? Presumably New Zealand has its equivalent of this document – showing that all tobacco ingredients are approved by its health department.

The other side of this issue of course is the damage done to people by the other sponsors of the trade conference, two of which are mentioned in this list – clearly compiled by someone with limited sympathy for the businesses involved. Chevron found itself in a US court over allegations about its activities in Nigeria. The point is that there is a list as long as the Australian coastline of issues that one could use as an excuse to boycott a trade conference. Tobacco companies are accused of manufacturing department of health-approved products that are said to be lethal and of providing work for children in countries with a heavy reliance on the tobacco crop, exposing them to possible pesticide contamination. Chevron is accused of dumping toxic waste in the Amazon and paying militias to defend their mineral interests in Nigeria, where they have allegedly shot protesters and other bystanders dead. I am not fully informed about either situation, but if I were protesting about anyone at the trade conference it would have been Chevron, rather than Philip Morris.

Many powerful companies abuse and/or neglect the powerless when they can get away with it, in the course of pursuing their business interests. It goes with the territory of intense competition and imbalance of power.

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