The tobacco industry's tactics in Africa are deeply troubling

A report has cast an unflattering light on the tactics used to frustrate regulation 

James Moore
Chief Business Correspondent
Wednesday 12 July 2017 12:46
Comments
Cigarette companies scent an opportunity in Africa
Cigarette companies scent an opportunity in Africa

Faced with a sharp decline in rates of smoking in the West, the tobacco industry has pumped money and resources into opening up markets in places where taxes and regulations aren't always so restrictive.

Africa is one of the most important of those.

It had the lowest number of tobacco related deaths among World Health Organisation regions in 2010 but that might soon change.

The attractions of the market to all sorts of businesses are becoming increasingly clear.

A rising number of its people are pulling themselves out of the poverty that has defined the continent for too many years, and its economies are growing, some at a rapid rate.

If the industry can hold off regulations designed to control the sale of tobacco, and taxes to make smoking it more expensive, those economies will provide a rich seam of revenues for years.

The Guardian this morning cast a deeply unflattering light on the activities being undertaken to that end.

Its report focuses on British American Tobacco, one of the world’s biggest tobacco manufacturers that is soon to become the biggest.

An internal investigation, for which BAT retained law firm Linklaters, is ongoing into allegations by a former employee that officials in East Africa were bribed to undermine anti smoking laws. So we’ll park that for now

What report says about the “legitimate” activities is, anyway, quite troubling enough.

The approach used, as portrayed in the report, is to deploy very similar arguments to the ones that have been defeated in the West. And, just as happened in the West, to make aggressive use of every possible lever to frustrate efforts to regulate tobacco products in ways the industry doesn't much like.

If this concerns you, as it does me, you may find it disquieting to consider that you and I are probably invested in BAT, and other tobacco giants, through our pensions and savings.

We could therefore be considered complicit in what the company is doing. That being the case, I would hope that the institutions that manage our money, and thus control our votes at the AGMs of tobacco companies, will use the clout they have to raise questions.

For its part, BAT has always argued that it is not opposed to regulation per se. In fact, I was told by a spokesperson that it is "simply not true that we oppose all tobacco regulation, particularly in developing countries".

"We agree that as a product that poses risks to health, tobacco should be appropriately regulated. As a result, we do not oppose sound, evidence-based regulation that has gone through a formal consultation process and delivers its policy aims.

“However, where we feel that regulations are unlawful, may have unintended consequences or are failing to deliver their policy aims, we think it is entirely reasonable to ask the Courts to assist in resolving it. This is an approach we take in both developed and developing nations – having done so in countries like the UK, France, Canada and Australia.”

Make of that what you will.

While the company’s activities might comply with the law, the bigger question is whether they are ethical? That’s very much open to debate.

Tobacco is a legal product, but it is a profoundly destructive one. As such it needs to be tightly regulated, and taxed, both as a necessary deterrent, and so that the costs of caring for those stricken by the illnesses that can impact those that use it are covered.

Rich Western countries have imposed advertising bans, plain packaging, and high taxes, among other things, all of which have successfully reduced the use of tobacco.

A range of organisations, including the World Health Organisation, Britain’s Department for International Development, and even Bloomberg, have chipped in with money and expertise, with the aim of achieving the same results in Africa and in other parts of what is commonly known as the developing world.

However, the report suggests that they will have to prepare for a long and grinding struggle.

It is a battle that will ultimately be won, as it was here. But, by fighting and delaying legislation and regulation at every turn, the industry will make a lot of money along the way. And a lot of people will die.

In the course of researching this piece, I was pointed by Action on Smoking & Health to a study by Prabhat Jha, founding director of the Centre for Global Health Research in Canada. He estimated that the number of tobacco related deaths in the 21st century could top 1bn. That’s a sobering figure.

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