Tobacco industry sought to prevent Islamic fatwas against smoking

BMJ 2015; 350 doi: (Published 28 April 2015) Cite this as: BMJ 2015;350:h2281
  1. Owen Dyer
  1. 1Montreal

For three decades the tobacco industry has fought a secret battle against Islamic scholars who seek to discourage smoking, show industry documents reported in a new study in the American Journal of Public Health.1

Tobacco firms have sought to recruit Islamic scholars to argue against strict prohibitions and have asked industry lawyers to study Islamic theology and provide interpretations of the Koran that are friendlier to tobacco. “The industry has sought to distort and misinterpret the cultural beliefs of these communities and to reinterpret them to serve the industry’s interests,” said Kelley Lee of Vancouver’s Simon Fraser University, one of the authors of the study. “All to sell a product that kills half of its customers.”

Islam was historically neutral towards smoking, but as the health dangers emerged many scholars began to argue that it was “markrooh” (discouraged) or “haram” (prohibited). Documents from British American Tobacco (BAT) show that it identified this development as a major threat to future sales by 1979, when a company memo warned, “The rise of militant Islam poses serious problems. Smoking, and the consumption of alcohol, are forbidden under this creed.”

“The resurgence of Islam,” said BAT’s chairman in a 1980 speech, risks “transforming the economic environment.” Soon after this a media campaign in Pakistan called for a jihad against smoking, and in 1985 the Malaysian Medical Association persuaded the National Fatwa Council to declare smoking un-Islamic.

In 1984 a tobacco company employee visiting Saudi Arabia observed, “The pressure upon smoking is continuous, with Friday sermons in the mosques stating that smoking is Haram. Capping the bad news is a move among the Mullahs to make smoking anti-Islamic behaviour.”

By 1996 BAT documents described “the Islamic threat” as “a real danger to the industry.”

In increasingly shrill terms the industry began to highlight what it saw as worrying links between antismoking campaigners and extremist interpretations of Islam. A 1995 Philip Morris memo complained that “the WHO [World Health Organization] has not only joined forces with Muslim fundamentalists who view smoking as evil, but has gone yet further by encouraging religious leaders previously not active antismokers to take up the cause.”

In a 1979 speech Horace Kornegay, president of the US trade group the Tobacco Institute, drew parallels between Iranian religious prohibitions and the efforts of the US secretary of health, Joseph Califano: “In 1906, an Iranian ayatollah decreed that smoking was against Islamic purity. Overnight, cigarettes disappeared from the entire country. In 1977, Ayatollah Califano declared a holy war against tobacco: he is gone, but his mullahs remain.”

Muslim countries are key to the industry’s survival strategy as smoking declines in rich countries, and tobacco companies have sought to influence Muslim thinking by recruiting allies. A 1996 BAT memo suggested that the company identify “a scholar/scholars, preferably at the Al Azhar University in Cairo, who we could then brief and enlist.” The scholar would be teamed up with a Muslim writer or journalist. “This is an issue to be handled extremely gingerly,” the memo warned. “We have to avoid all possibilities of a backlash.”

A Philip Morris memo described efforts to seek allies at the Islamic studies department of McGill University in Montreal, one of several efforts by lobbyists to create a panel of scholars tolerant of tobacco.

Meanwhile industry lawyers searched Koranic verses for loopholes. A presentation from the firm Shook, Hardy and Bacon found no prohibition against smoking and argued that “making rules beyond what Allah has allowed is a sin in itself.”

Consultants in Islamic countries worked to prevent health warnings making mention of the Koran. A BAT consultant wrote that he had prevented publication of several booklets on the subject. “Once the religious aspect is conveyed to the public it will be very difficult to reverse the situation,” he warned.

The industry papers were drawn from the Legacy Tobacco Documents Library, a database of 15 million documents from US lawsuits. They do not cover the past 15 years, but Lee said that the industry’s battle continues, using a message that seeks to tie smoking with freedom from religious oppression, especially for women. “Freedom always,” proclaims a recent Gauloises advertisement in Qatar, portraying a woman without a headscarf. BAT’s global sales fell last year, but four of six countries where sales rose were Islamic.

The self proclaimed Islamic State banned tobacco completely in the areas it conquered, and last year it flogged and even executed repeat offenders caught smoking in public after a ban. One of the group’s own senior officials was decapitated and his head displayed with a cigarette in its mouth and a note saying, “This is not permissible, Sheikh.” But even the Islamic State’s terror proved weaker than desire for tobacco: last September the group relented in the face of popular anger and allowed shops to sell cigarettes again.


Cite this as: BMJ 2015;350:h2281


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