Some stakeholders in the asbestos industry are being accused of using the same marketing approach that was used by lobbying groups for large tobacco companies decades earlier.
The International Chrysotile Association, a global asbestos lobbying group, was recently criticized for supposedly hiring APCO Worldwide, a Washington D.C.-based public relations firm, to lobby the government of Malaysia to exclude chrysotile asbestos from its proposed ban list of asbestos types.
According to critics, this move by the association to hire a lobbying group is very reminiscent of efforts made by another controversial industry some years back.
Philip Morris, one of the largest tobacco manufacturers in the United States, hired APCO Worldwide in the 1990s to assist in the battle against public health efforts that attempted to limit and ban smoking.
Asbestos is a mineral that is known to cause mesothelioma, a rare cancer that results in 2,000 to 3,000 deaths per year in the United States.
Anti-asbestos advocates and critics have weighed in on the issue with harsh criticism for groups like the International Chrysotile Association.
What the Critics are Saying
“The asbestos industry is the tobacco industry’s evil twin,” said Patrick Martin, a member of Canada’s Parliament and a potential leadership candidate for the New Democratic Party in Canada. As a person who was exposed to asbestos in his younger years, Martin has become a verbal critic of his country’s participation in the asbestos industry.
Much of the marketing strategies and tactics are intended to provide doubt to governments and companies about the link between asbestos exposure and the development of diseases like mesothelioma and asbestosis.
“The asbestos lobby uses the exact same modus operandi as Big Tobacco did to try to keep a question mark alive,” Martin said.
Efforts from some in Canada’s asbestos industry to lobby foreign governments stem from the country’s proposed expansion of one of its largest asbestos mines, Jeffrey Mine. Approximately 90 percent of the estimated 150,000 tons of asbestos that is produced annually is exported out of Canada to a number of Third World countries. Therefore, maintaining demand from other countries remains important for the industry.
Meanwhile, asbestos is already banned in more than 50 nations and is highly regulated in many more.
Lobbying to Prove a Point
The asbestos industry and APCO Worldwide, in attempts to keep some governments from banning the use of the mineral, have been accused of bringing a toxicologist from Switzerland to Malaysia to convince the Malaysian government that asbestos can be used safely.
The critic who made this accusation is Kathleen Ruff, who is a human rights and anti-asbestos advocate with the Ottawa-based Rideau Institute.
“The scientific consensus is clear — just as it is on tobacco — that all forms of asbestos, including chrysotile asbestos, cause mesothelioma, lung cancer, other cancers and asbestosis and that safe use is not possible,” Ruff wrote in a letter to the president of APCO Worldwide.
“Only lobby organizations that have a financial interest in selling asbestos claim that asbestos can be safely used, just as the lobby organizations acting on behalf of the tobacco industry have denied the clear science on tobacco harm,” she continued.
As it appears, the asbestos industry and their critics are still on very opposing sides of the issues and show no room for agreement.
Financial commitments are required from purchasing companies and interested governments in order for the expansion of Jeffrey Mine to proceed. Criticism about APCO Worldwide and the asbestos industry may or may not be enough to stop the progress of the mine’s expansion if countries like Malaysia agree to purchase the product.
Unfortunately for future mesothelioma patients and those who will be exposed to asbestos, this situation is one fight, like many others, in which the concern for human health risks intersects with business interests.