How did Jordan end up with the highest smoking rate in the world?

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Guardian international correspondent Michael Safi tells Anushka Asthana about why he decided to look into smoking rates in the Middle Eastern kingdom of Jordan. They have become the highest in the world, with more than eight in 10 Jordanian men smoking or regularly using nicotine products including vapes and e-cigarettes, according to a government study carried out in 2019 in collaboration with the World Health Organization. Jordanian men who smoke daily consume an average of 23 cigarettes a day, the survey found.

But Michael’s story soon turned into an investigation as he began to uncover what public-health advocates say is widespread interference in policymaking by multinational tobacco companies. The industry casts itself as a major investor and job creator, an especially potent argument in a country with high unemployment, where tobacco taxes amount to around 18% of the government’s annual revenue. The impacts of so much smoking are already stark: tobacco use is linked to one in eight deaths in the country, compared with one in 10 deaths worldwide, and costs Jordan’s GDP an estimated three times the global average.

The tobacco companies have offered the following response:

Philip Morris international said their interactions with government officials in Jordan complied with all applicable laws, as well as higher international standards. They said: “In any democratic society, the central objective of regulatory policy can only be achieved with full participation of those concerned.”

British American Tobacco said they “believe that regulators have the right to hear all sides of any debate when they are developing policies” and added: “We believe that our experience and expertise can provide valuable insights and practical knowledge to governments and policymakers that can help in developing robust and evidence-based policies for our industry that deliver on the intended policy aims.”

Japan Tobacco International made the same argument about the relationships between business and government, and said the tobacco sector was highly regulated and monitored by the government in Jordan – and that they obeyed all regulations and policies.

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