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Do student ethics go up in smoke when it comes to tobacco companies?

Coca Cola, charged with tacitly supporting the murder of trade unionists in Columbia, and Nestlé, with causing the deaths of babies in Africa by undermining breastfeeding in order to sell formula milk, have been the target of student boycotts overseas and in the UK for several years. Unions and guilds at universities around the country claim a uniquely responsible approach to retailing, but an ethical trading policy recently renewed at the University of Manchester Students’ Union (UMSU) contains a glaring omission: tobacco companies.

Some Union Executives, including UMSU’s General Secretary, say they believe large numbers of politically active students smoke, and that this is one reason for a lack of protest on the issue. Others point out that large (and successful) governmental campaigns against smoking may have caused complacency.

But with a turnover of millions across the UK’s student unions, the percieved financial benefits of tobacco remain a threat to potential anti-smoking campaigns by students.

The National Union of Students, through its retail services arm, supplied individual students’ unions in the UK with over £5.5m worth of tobacco products last year, almost £400,000 more than the year before. These figures represent the wholesale value, before VAT and the retailer’s mark-up. UMSU, the country’s largest students’ union, spends over £60,000 a year on tobacco, the equivalent of about 300,000 cigarettes. There are 23 unions that spend over £100,000 on tobacco per financial year.

Manchester is not unique in terms of student apathy towards the cigarette industry. Last year a member of the Edinburgh University Students’ Association tried to pass a motion banning the sale of cigarettes on the premises. The motion passed, but in a heavily amended form: cigarettes were to be hidden from display in the Association building, meaning the removal of vending machines from the bar, which “can be accessed by under-18s”, as the motion stated. The financial impact of banning cigarettes was cited as an argument for watering down the motion.

But Deborah Arnott, Chief Executive for Action on Smoking and Health (ASH), Britain’s largest anti-smoking charity, said that retailers are less likely to be financially reliant on tobacco than other products: “You don’t get much profit from cigarettes; they’re high turnover but low mark-up. So why sell them; why sell a product that kills when you’re not even making much profit from it?”

When legislation passes in October 2011 to ban cigarette vending machines, which bars are paid a flat fee to have on their premises, most license venues say they will stop selling tobacco altogether. “Having to sell individual packs of cigarettes behind the bar is a waste of time,” says Arnott.

Hannah Paterson, Welfare Officer for UMSU, is resposnsible for representing the health and wellbeing of students. She said she was not aware of any anti-smoking campaigns on campus:  “Nobody’s brought it up as an issue,” Ms Paterson said.

“Anti-smoking campaigns have won a lot of big battles recently with the ban on smoking inside and the ban on advertising tobacco. I think people feel they’ve won a battle there and want to focus on things that are, in their eyes, more urgent.”

Students may be more active against tobacco companies if the problem were recognised as an international human rights issue rather than a personal health issue, says Arnott: “It’s not really seen as an international issue as much, yet it is an international issue because actually, and we’ve produced reports on this, it is a very unethical industry, hardly surprising I suppose.

“If you look at countries where tobacco is produced like Malawi or Kenya, the producers are in a form of bondage in that they are lent money by tobacco companies to buy fertiliser and stuff like that and they have to sell the tobacco leaf back to those companies. They get sucked in and have to keep growing the leaf because they don’t have the money to get out [of debt]. It’s a lot like sharecropping was in the States.”

A report published by ASH with the help of Christian Aid details a host of corporate abuses including how British American Tobacco (BAT), along with others, blocked a malaria prevention programme in Uganda because they feared the pesticides used to kill mosquitoes in farm workers’ homes would damage tobacco crops.  The aggressive marketing of cigarettes towards children, and the exacerbation of famine, are also explored in the report.

The NUS said they were too busy with campaigning around last week’s tuition fees vote to comment on tobacco sales. One member of staff said “I don’t think it’s as big a deal as you’re making out.”

This attitude is reflected by others in the politically active student community: one cannot campaign on everything at once; there are cuts to worry about at the moment.

Arnott advocates engagement with students, rather than forcing the removal of cigarettes from unions, “Why do they care about Coca Cola but not Lucky Strike or British American Tobacco? I don’t know. If they care about one, they should care about the other.”

Tags: NUS, smoking

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Joshua Carroll

Joshua Carroll was a News Editor for The Mancunion (2010-2012). He has written for the Guardian, the Daily Mirror, and the Manchester Evening News. He won the NUS Student Journalist of the Year award in 2010.

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