By Hana Ross, Managing Director, International Tobacco Control Research, American Cancer Society Intramural Research department. Edited by John M. Daniel.
Prague, Czech Republic — As a member of the American Cancer Society’s Intramural Research department, I know the scientific progress we make here has applications in the “real world.” But recently I saw firsthand how something we do routinely – publish research results in a scientific journal – can become something bigger that will immediately make a difference in the fight against cancer.
In June, along with researchers from the University of Bath and the University of Edinburgh, we published an article in PLoSMedicine. This article, a case study of tobacco industry interference with tobacco tax and advertising policy, revealed the close links between the major tobacco companies and policymakers in the Czech Republic, showing how Big Tobacco influenced policy there.
This discovery caught the attention of the Czech tobacco control advocates, who organized a press conference at the Czech Senate, chaired by its President Milan Stech and sponsored by the Deputy Director of the Health and Social Committee of the Czech Senate Jan Zaloudik, M.D., who is also a well-respected oncologist. Apart from myself, the other invited speakers were Professor Robert West, PhD, from University College in London, Eva Kralikova, M.D. from Charles University in Prague, and Katherine Smith, PhD, from the University of Edinburgh.
About 30 journalists attended the press conference, and the Czech Press Agency distributed the story to the country’s principal newspapers. I sat for an interview that was broadcasted on primetime TV news, and a print interview that included my thoughts was featured the following day as the “interview of the week” in the most-respected Czech economic newspaper. In addition, Dr. Smith and I provided an interview to the popular magazine Respect – the Czech equivalent of Time magazine. A TV film crew also shot a documentary with all press conference participants about the influence of the tobacco industry in the country. The film will be aired this October.
In apparent damage control for the press conference, the spokesperson for Philip Morris Czech Republic arranged for an interview in the daily Lidove Noviny (people’s newspaper) that was published three days before the event. The article portrays the tobacco business as vital for the Czech economy exaggerating its contributions to the state budget while disregarding the enormous economic costs caused by tobacco use. It also claims that only criminals benefit from any attempt to control tobacco use in the country, because too many regulations drive the tobacco business underground and the state loses its tax income. This last point was supported by a conveniently timed police raid conducted the same day as the press conference that discovered five tons of smuggled tobacco and more than 200,000 smuggled cigarettes near Prague. Senator Zaloudik will enquire about the raid and whether it was reported to the European Commission, the administrative body of the European Union. If the recovered smuggled goods are genuine products, the tobacco companies could face substantial penalties according to their contract with the commission.
This media reaction to this news was unprecedented. As a Czech native who works in tobacco control research, I have held press conferences in the Czech Republic before, but never has there been so much interest as this time. Even the questions journalists asked were different – better informed and to the point.
Tobacco control is clearly gaining ground in the Czech Republic. The country has finally ratified the World Health Organization’s Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (FCTC), and was the last country in Europe to do so. The PLoSMedicine article and the press coverage that accompanied it are breakthroughs that should further galvanize the tobacco control movement in the Czech Republic as it faces tough opposition in its attempt to establish smoke-free restaurants and cafes – interventions that studies show reduce smoking prevalence and, by extension, the incidence of lung cancer.
The country’s ratification of the FCTC is such an important event because the Czech Republic is very influential, both economically and culturally, in Central and Eastern Europe. For this reason, Philip Morris International chose the country in the 1990s for its first significant investment in the former socialist bloc. Today, the country is poised to be the first major battleground in the region between Big Tobacco and cancer control advocates – a battle which may well determine whether tobacco use (and lung cancer) throughout Eastern Europe can be brought under control via taxation and policy, as has been done successfully in Western Europe.
Not all of the American Cancer Society’s research publications result in press conferences, primetime TV coverage, and police raids. Most of them impact the cancer fight much more quietly, as fellow researchers and cancer control advocates worldwide build on them or apply them in practice. Still, it’s gratifying to know something we do can snowball in such a way, and help to save lives from cancer around the globe.