In 2008, British American Tobacco (BAT) was awarded its third straight “Gold Medal” from Prime Minister Hun Sen in recognition of good corporate stewardship, according to the company’s July newsletter.
As a “corporate citizen of Cambodia, we consider it our responsibility to assist in the development of this country and the people,” BAT’s Asia-Pacific marketing director Dale Mclean was quoted as saying in the newsletter. Mr. Mclean went on to express his “deep gratitude” to Mr. Hun Sen for “his vision, wisdom and leadership.”
It might have seemed an odd moment for the largest cigarette maker by market share in a country where the World Health Organization estimates 10,000 people die of tobacco-related causes every year. But the goodwill between BAT and the Cambodian government was by then nothing new, according to a new paper by a pair of foreign academics.
Since the mid-1990s, BAT aggressively sought to establish close connections with those at the highest levels of government in order to shape industry-friendly tobacco taxes and regulations, write Ross MacKenzie, a health sciences lecturer at Macquarie University in Sydney, and Jeff Colin, a professor of global health policy at the University of Edinburgh, in the latest issue of the journal Global Public Health.
Citing internal industry documents made public through litigation, the company’s newsletter, news articles and marketing reports, the authors conclude that connections with political elites were “both widely acknowledged and beyond public criticism,” allowing BAT to “dilute tobacco control regulation.”
British American Tobacco did not respond to repeated requests for comment on Wednesday.
The company’s influence may help explain why the Cambodian government has taken so long to implement a series of regulations on advertising, taxation and other smoking-related measures it ratified in 2005 as a signatory to the WHO’s Framework Convention on Tobacco Control.
As early as 1995, BAT’s “Indo-China” plan noted the importance of “handling government officials at both the provincial and national levels.”
“It is imperative that anti-tobacco marketing restrictions are pre-empted by a balanced counter view presented at the highest levels in government and the media,” BAT wrote.
Seeking to position itself as the voice of calm in an unruly industry, BAT repeatedly touted its role in supporting economic development while simultaneously courting key government officials through its Cambodian partners, the paper says.
By partnering with businessman Kong Triv’s Cambodia Tobacco Company and courting fellow tycoon Kok An—both of whom have served in the Senate—the authors say BAT gained conduits to advocate for its policy position at Cambodia’s Government-Private Sector Forum.
According to the website of the Ministry of Economy and Finance, the Forum’s industry-specific working groups “provided a platform for business representatives to offer expertise on a range of policy and regulatory reforms” to government officials.
Statements from the company suggest its tactics have paid dividends.
In an August 2007 newsletter, BAT general manager Arend Ng praised the company’s success in lowering a proposed excise tax as “a shining example of what can be achieved when industry and Government work together.”
The group also aggressively lobbied members of a Health Ministry group charged with making recommendations about a 2010 law that ultimately banned tobacco ads in certain settings. At the time, Kun Lim, head of BAT’s corporate and regulatory affairs, praised officials in an interview with The Phnom Penh Post for their “commitment to listen” and to ensure that “no unnecessary burdens are placed on business.”
Another prong of BAT’s strategies entailed corporate social responsibility programs, including supporting family tobacco growers, hosting workshops on child labor and supporting government reforestation with four large nurseries, two of which were named after Prime Minister Hun Sen.
Many of these overtures appear to be in direct violation of Article 5.3 of WHO’s Tobacco Control framework, which states that “parties shall act to protect [tobacco] policies from commercial and other vested interests of the tobacco industry in accordance with national law.”
Judith Mackay, a senior adviser with health advocacy group Vital Strategies, said on Wednesday that BAT’s strategies were typical in the developing world.
“Their objective is to bolster their global revenues and profits by winning customers, especially in the low and middle income markets because smoking rates have declined in many high-income countries where consumers have been educated about the harms of tobacco,” she said in an email.
Mark Schwisow, country director for the Adventist Development and Relief Agency, agreed.
“The trend internationally is for policymakers to make the law as weak as possible,” he said.
Spokesmen for the ministries of commerce and finance declined to comment on the findings published by Mr. MacKenzie and Mr. Colin.
Given’s BAT’s recent history of engaging with authoritarian governments in Uzbekistan, Burma, and even North Korea, the academics say they doubt the company will back down from its engagement with the Cambodian government.
“BAT’s perceptibly close relationship with the Cambodian government raises…questions regarding corporate operations in countries where national governments engage in large-scale human rights violations,” they write.