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Nations that cannot fight tobacco industry should raise taxes, says WHO

World Health Organization says many governments have neither funds nor expertise to take on big tobacco companies

African nations whose attempts to regulate cigarettes are increasingly bogged down in the courts by wealthy tobacco companies should impose high taxes to deter people from developing a smoking habit, the World Health Organization says.

Vinayak Prasad of WHO’s Tobacco Free Initiative said many African governments were at a disadvantage in the fight against the industry over regulatory controls, like graphic health warnings on packs, which are the norm in the west. They have neither the funds nor enough expertise to deal with the big tobacco companies’ threats, intimidatory letters and law suits.

His comments follow the exposure by the Guardian of the attempts by multinational tobacco companies to delay and dilute regulatory controls in Africa through litigation and threats. At least eight African governments have been pressured by the industry.

“Just focus on getting the tax raised,” urged Prasad. WHO, the World Bank and others were trying to encourage and assist countries in changing their tobacco taxation, which countries from the Philippines to India had demonstrated could raise millions of dollars for healthcare or other essential government spending.

Developing nations do not have enough money or staff devoted to public health, he said. Often those in government who lead on tobacco control are also the key players for other areas, such as mental health.

“The tobacco epidemic has already reached the African continent. Countries have started to prioritise it but inherently the systems are weak. They need to build human resource capacity and technical capacity to respond to industry threats,” he told the Guardian. “We are working extremely hard [to help them] but we need to do more.”

Reacting to the Guardian’s reports, former public health minister Caroline Flint said: “It is sad to see firms like BAT fighting African governments for years over health warnings on cigarette packages and modest taxes. In any western nation they would have conceded these issues years ago. It speaks volumes about their approach to Africa that the tobacco giants appear willing to fight on all fronts to protect their sales.”

Lord Rennard, the vice chair of the all-party parliamentary group on smoking and health, said a tax on the profits of firms “could provide funds for legal support to governments in poorer countries seeking to resist tobacco damaging the health of their local populations”.

The tobacco industry also vigorously opposes hikes in the taxation of cigarettes, which is proven to reduce the numbers who smoke. The companies and tax advisers who intervene on their behalf with governments claim that tax hikes lead to smuggling from countries where the prices are lower. Prasad says that is not so if taxation is simplified, so that the same sum is levied on every carton regardless of brand.

Deborah Arnott, chief executive of campaigning group Ash, said the revelations showed that the industry had not turned over a new leaf, focusing on vaping and aiming for a smoke-free future, as it claims. “The Guardian has thrown a spotlight on the dirty truth, the leopard hasn’t changed its spots, it’s still promoting the same old lethal products the same way it always did, in countries where it can get away with it,” she said.

“Last century 100 million people died from smoking; if Big Tobacco isn’t stopped then this century a billion will be killed by their lethal products and most of them will be from low and middle income countries. The tactics being used in Africa of denial, deception and delay were used very successfully in the UK in the last century, but they’re no longer being allowed to get away with it here and smoking rates have plummeted as a result. Africa needs to learn from our experience, if you regulate the industry strictly the smoking epidemic can be halted and reversed.”

Dr Tom Frieden, former director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in the US, said in a tweet that the revelations showed the “outrageous and shameful activities of tobacco industry in Africa”. US senator Richard Blumenthal, who spent his career promoting anti-smoking legislation, and was one of 46 state attorneys general to secure hundreds of billions of dollars in damages from tobacco companies in a 1990s settlement, said that in developing markets “tobacco companies have actively resisted” health regulation. “They have actively intervened with governments, and particularly so in Africa.”

José Luis Castro, president and chief executive officer of Vital Strategies, an organisation that promotes public health in developing countries, said: “The danger of tobacco is not an old story; it is the present. The industry is using every tool at its disposal to hook new smokers, especially kids, in Africa and other parts of the world.” There is a huge gap between what the industry says and what it does, he said. “It’s time this sham was called out in every country and in every public forum. When the tobacco industry gets near government, it poisons efforts to protect health.”

The multinational companies say they do not oppose tobacco regulation that is sound and evidence-based. “However, where there are different interpretations of whether regulations comply with the law, we think it is entirely reasonable to ask the courts to assist in resolving it,” British American Tobacco told the Guardian.

Imperial Tobacco also said it supported regulation, but it would “continue to make our views known on excessive, unnecessary and often counter-productive regulatory proposals”.

Philip Morris International said it has contact with public authorities on a range of issues, “such as taxation, international trade, and tobacco control policies. Participating in discussions and sharing points of view is a basic principle of public policy making and does not stop governments from taking decisions and enacting the laws they deem best”.

This content is funded, in part, by Vital Strategies.

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