First person: 'I fought the tobacco industry'

Judith Mackay, 65

Saturday 09 May 2009 00:00 BST

My husband John and I moved from the UK to Hong Kong in 1969. I worked in medical research and then as a doctor on an intensive care ward before focusing on women's health issues. In the early Eighties, there was a huge drive by the tobacco industry to get Asian women addicted to cigarettes.

At that time, 60 per cent of Asian men were smokers, compared to just 3 per cent of women. So the industry came up with adverts such as: "You've come a long way, baby!" They hoped to woo their audience with a message of liberation – that it was a woman's right to smoke.

I had been writing a health column for a newspaper for a while, and filed an article calling for a ban on advertising. Immediately, the tobacco industry and its supporters descended on me, trying to discredit my argument. In 1982, I received a letter from a press officer working for the tobacco industry, whom I'd never met. He wrote: "I enclose some documents which will soon be released by our client. I thought you might be interested to see them for yourself". It read: "The anti-smoking lobby in Hong Kong is largely anonymous, unidentifiable, entirely unrepresentative and unaccountable. The tobacco industry comprises identifiable, legal, accountable, commercial organisations." I couldn't believe what I was reading, and made it my mission to fight my cause to the end.

I left clinical medicine and started the Asian Consultancy on Tobacco Control, which still exists today. At that time, there was no one else campaigning for such a cause in Asia, and it was a very lonely existence. I started advising the government. Asia is a huge market for the tobacco industry, so my work posed a threat. As a result, I made a lot of enemies. In a 1989 report, A Guide for Dealing with Anti-tobacco Pressure Groups, I was labelled "A key individual [whose] presence is a danger signal". The same year, I was branded one of the three most dangerous people in the world by the tobacco organsiation Infotab.

A Smokers' Rights Group in the United States in the Nineties called me "nothing more than an evil-possessed, power-lusting piece of meat" and threatened to "utterly destroy me". The FBI took up my case and interpreted this as a death threat. This was just one example of the extreme abuse I have suffered for trying to take on the pro-smoking lobby. Until recently, I had very little support in what I was doing and was painted as a deluded extremist.

Finally, however, I have gained recognition: I received the Time 100 award in 2007 for my work, and this year was honoured with a lifetime achievement award from the British Medical Journal. My one-woman campaign has now spread, and today we are an army rather than a general. The cause has finally reached the international agenda, but it has been a right royal battle getting it there.

Join our commenting forum

Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies


Thank you for registering

Please refresh the page or navigate to another page on the site to be automatically logged inPlease refresh your browser to be logged in