Humans are notoriously bad at estimating risk. Most people fear flying far more than driving, even though the odds of dying in a car accident (1 in 107 in the US, for example) are far higher than perishing in an aircraft crash (about 1 in 11 million).

What we are really good at, however, is self-deception.

Take smoking. By now, just about everyone must surely know that tobacco is extremely bad for us in all kinds of horrible ways, yet every day millions of smokers and shisha fans ignore the very real risk that their habit will kill them.

They are taking a 50-50 gamble. Tobacco kills about half of its users.

Every year, according to the World Health Organization, smoking prematurely ends the lives of about 8 million people.

Tobacco, it turns out, is an even more effective way of killing off human beings than war. In the 20th century, conflict, including the two world wars, killed 72 million people. Tobacco killed 100 million.

And the dying is only the half of it – the path to a smoking-related death is often a long, painful and distressing journey of suffering for the dying and their loved ones.

Government anti-smoking policy

Given all that, and the vast cost to health systems around the world, you’d have thought that governments everywhere would be doing all they could to slay the tobacco dragon. Think again.

As it is being increasingly driven out of markets in Europe and North America, the tobacco industry is maintaining, and even increasing, its profits by targeting countries in the Middle East – and doing so often with the collaboration of governments.

It is no coincidence that, according to the World Health Organization, more than 80 percent of the world’s 1.3 billion tobacco users now live in low- and middle-income countries.

In a devil’s deal struck in exchange for highly lucrative tax incomes, nations throughout the Middle East and North Africa are actively encouraging and, in some cases, even rewarding the growth of the world’s deadliest industry.

Tobacco industry efforts

recent report published by the Global Center for Good Governance in Tobacco Control in collaboration with the WHO’s Eastern Mediterranean Regional Office exposed industry interference with tobacco control policies in eight countries: Egypt, Iran, Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon, Oman, Pakistan and Sudan.

“Every time we trace the lack of progress in any aspect of tobacco control in individual countries or collectively in the East Mediterranean Region,” commented Dr Jawad Al Lawati, a tobacco control advocate in Oman’s health ministry, “we find the tobacco industry, its local distributors or front groups and individuals are behind it.”

Oman, it has to be said, emerges well from the Industry Interference Index 2021 report, banning industry representatives from public-health policy committees, offering tobacco companies no business incentives and refusing to enter into industry partnerships.

Oman is an exception, even though all eight countries in the report are parties to the WHO’s Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (FCTC), which in theory commits them to implement tobacco control measures and “protect their health policies from interference from commercial and other vested interest.”

In Sudan and Iraq, for example, the industry “has found a way to participate in developing the standards for tobacco products,” with representatives sitting on various official committees.

Lobbying or interference?

In Jordan in 2018, a new factory built by international tobacco company JTI was given an Environmental Stewardship Award by the Jordanian environment ministry.

In Egypt, where international tobacco giant Philip Morris runs training courses for customs officials to combat smuggling that might undercut its market, the company was presented with a certificate of appreciation by the finance ministry for paying its taxes on time.

The tobacco industry has long sought to gain leverage and improve its reputation through Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) initiatives, a tactic it perfected in America and Europe as awareness grew about the dangers of tobacco.

Cynically, having been rumbled in the West, it is now at the same game in the region – and in various initiatives in Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon and Pakistan, has even exploited the COVID-19 pandemic “to gain public endorsement and access senior government officials”.

Perhaps the worst example of cynical CSR was in Iraq in 2020, when “the Ministry of Trade distributed locally produced Somar brand cigarettes together with the items of the free food ration program distributed as an assistance to poor families”.

Smoking is worse than Covid

Official conflicts of interest, meanwhile, are rife, but perhaps the most brazen is the fact that several countries, including Egypt (Eastern Tobacco Company) and Lebanon (Regie), have state-owned tobacco companies.

Governments are, quite literally, profiting from the death of the citizens by smoking who they are supposed to be protecting.

According to the American Cancer Society’s annual Tobacco Atlas, in the eight countries featured in the WHO’s Industry Interference Index, more than 360,000 people die of smoking-related diseases every year.

In the time of COVID, we have become used to reading about unspeakably high death tolls – to date, over 5.7 million lives have been lost to the coronavirus that emerged in China in December 2019.

The greater risk we are ignoring, however, is that each and every year the smoking pandemic, against which the only vaccination is education and determined public-health policies, kills millions of people.

The result is the extraordinary and shameful spectacle of governments doing their best to handle COVID-19, while on the other hand blithely encouraging the growth of the much more lethal pandemic of tobacco.