First person: 'I fought the tobacco industry'

Judith Mackay, 65

Saturday 09 May 2009 00:00
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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.

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