SCMP Friday, February 9, 2001
Behind the smokescreen
"I know we're not going to talk about cigarettes," says Brenda Chow, handing over her business card with a dimpled smile and a flourish. It reads: Director of Public Affairs, China, Hong Kong and Macau. British American Tobacco (BAT).
My stomach sinks. I'm here to interview the woman who was Asia's most senior female tobacco executive until her retirement earlier this month and she doesn't want to talk . . . about . . . cigarettes.
I suggest, through gritted teeth and a decidedly dimple-less smile, that if we cannot talk about cigarettes then perhaps I should not be wasting her time. "Oh, well, you see," she says, "one of my friends told me, 'Brenda, you're retired, you should tell people about yourself and your commitment to society'."
So, for the record, Chow is a pillar of the community, throwing herself tirelessly into worthy causes including the Zonta Club, the Asian Cultural Council and the Liver Foundation.
But what I really want to talk about is cigarettes.
The dimples disappear, replaced by something steelier, and then they are back, deeper than ever. Talking about cigarettes would be fine, she concedes. After all, Chow has spent the past 20 years defending an increasingly besieged industry and a company that has been accused of everything from orchestrating smuggling to trying to dupe the public about the dangers of passive smoking with the best science money can buy. Surely one last chat before she settles into handsomely remunerated retirement won't hurt.
Chow is a youthful-looking 56, she radiates glowing good health and says she's never been tempted to puff on the product save for a couple of surreptitious, green-gilled drags when she was a teenager.
"I have to thank BAT for what I am today. In my junior years I learned job skills but in my later years I learned to become a leader, a team player and how to be a manager of managers. And that does not happen in a lot of multinational companies," she says.
She sounds reluctant to leave this corporate heaven-on-earth and says she was never tempted by the regular overtures of poachers of executive big game. "For my set of skills I thought it best to be learned and practised in either tobacco companies, oil companies, pharmaceuticals or liquor companies," she says. What, industries with less than savoury reputations?
"No, no, no," she chides. "They are industries where one can practise the skills of being a good crisis management person who can think on their feet, who is alert, who has the foresight and vision, or the antennae to anticipate people's needs."
Indeed, the tobacco industry must have provided almost daily practise for crisis management skills in recent years. Two years ago, this newspaper revealed how a coterie of tobacco honchos drew up a plan to target and recruit scientists throughout Asia, the US and Europe - dubbed Operation Whitecoat - to support their stance on Environmental Tobacco Smoke.
This was just one of a host of damaging revelations gleaned from more than 30 million pages of once-confidential documents posted on the Internet as part of a settlement of litigation in the US.
Then there were the headline-making claims of former Brown and Williamson scientist Jeffrey Wigand, who swore he had seen a document in which a top executive described the company as being in the "nicotine delivery business" despite testifying before Congress that nicotine was not addictive. Wigand's story inspired the hit Hollywood film, The Insider.
A year ago, there was more bad news for BAT. In Britain's House of Commons, Clive Bates, director of the anti-smoking group Action On Smoking And Health (ASH) alleged the world's second biggest tobacco company was "orchestrating, managing and controlling cigarette smuggling in Asia and Latin America in the early 1990s". ASH says documents it obtained and posted on its Web site show BAT supplied brands such as 555, Lucky Strike, Benson and Hedges and Kent to distributors in the full knowledge they would be smuggled into China, Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia.
At the time, Chow derided the claims as "out of context extracts from old documents". When I remind her of the allegations, she dismisses them with a wave of her hand. "If some people choose to cherry-pick and take things out of context it's their choice," she says. "No matter what the industry and the Government does, and we have been working closely with the Customs and Excise Department to stop illegal activities, the tax differential between trading countries makes it very difficult to stop smuggling."
One ASH estimate figures one billion people will die from smoking-related diseases this century. Does Chow ever wish she had directed her skills into a kinder, gentler industry? "Well, the tobacco industry does carry a stigma," she concedes. "The perception is that it's a risky product. The industry recognises the risk associated with the product." She seems to have perfected the art of avoiding yes or no answers to direct questions. She believes things are looking up for an industry she says has been unfairly demonised. She has faith in BAT chairman Martin Broughton's recent "partnership for change" proposal for the tobacco industry, governments and public health groups.
"Responsible companies such as ours are working together to ensure only adults smoke, that the public are informed of the risks and therefore encouraged to smoke fewer cigarettes, smoke lighter cigarettes and quit smoking sooner . . . and that the effort to research and develop lower-risk cigarettes and communicate those developments to consumers be encouraged and supported," she says.
All of which sounds a far cry from the bad old days, where the general policy seemed to be "deny everything, admit nothing" and the battle cry was "a cigarette not smoked is a cigarette not sold", as scientist Dr Guy Oldaker III, of RJ Reynolds tobacco company, pointed out in the late 80s.
Nicotine remains a prickly topic. As early as 1963, Brown and Williamson's general counsel, Addison Yeaman, said in an internal memo: "We are, then, in the business of selling nicotine, an addictive drug effective in the release of stress mechanisms."
The first time this view was echoed publicly was two years ago, when Philip Morris senior vice-president Steven Parrish said on US network television: "I think cigarette smoking is addictive as that term is used today."
Chow, however, will make no such concessions. "Do you know that nicotine naturally occurs in tomatoes and eggplants?" Sure, I say, but I've never seen any of my workmates huddled in a dingy, smoke-shrouded stairwell trying to fire up an eggplant. "Nicotine naturally occurs in tobacco leaves," she continues, with a practised, Weltschmerz-laden sigh. "If nicotine is so addictive, how come the nicotine patches do not sell? Tobacco is an easy target. People jump on the bandwagon, it gets people in the headlines, it sells. People do not take things with the proper perspective. BAT and our competitors all want a good corporate name. We want our products to be world class, otherwise how can we keep our smokers? So be patient and listen to people who know their products well." Forget the company line, I say. Does she, personally, think cigarettes kill people? Yes or no?
Another sigh. "We have to put this into perspective. If I eat a lot of red meat, if I don't exercise, if my work is very stressful, then a lot of things could happen to make me susceptible to various diseases. It's the same with liquor, with tobacco, or anything. Even exercise. Everything has to be taken in moderation, to fit your lifestyle and genetic disposition.
"I think some people are born with the genes or disposition to like [smoking]. Maybe because of their work, it takes stress away from them. Others just don't enjoy it. But there is a minority of consumers who enjoy this particular product and I would like the companies to be able to provide them with the best product available, to meet their needs."
She is adamant that big tobacco's movers and shakers aren't the villains of popular modern mythology. "I have asked people myself who have left the industry, 'What's your perception of people working in other industries compared with tobacco people?' And they say, 'Well, the tobacco people are less political and more decent as managers and peers'. I have to confirm this.
"They are decent people. Especially in my company. It believes people are its best asset."
So what does retirement hold for Chow? "At this stage in my life, I want to do more community work and get to know the older generation better. I've spent most of my time working with people my age or younger people.
"We owe the older generation a lot. Now it's my time to spend quality time with my mother. My father was a banker. He died 20 years ago. Now, my mother is 80 and she's living with me.
"So I'm starting a new career of adjusting my life to living with the older people. Trying to learn skills, how to adapt and be happy with them."
Chow flatly denies that her urge to do good works stems from any repressed guilt about making her fortune from tobacco. "There's no guilt at all," she says. "All I want, one of these days when I leave the world, is for people to think, 'Oh, she made a difference'. I want to kill people with kindness."