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The Guardian view on big tobacco: stop the spread

Companies like British American Tobacco are using the same tactics they used in the global north to delay legislation in the global south

Global corporations work hard to persuade the public of their commitment to corporate social responsibility. British American Tobacco, for example, declares on its website that “as the world’s most international tobacco group, we are in a position to take the lead in defining and demonstrating what a socially responsible tobacco company should be”. It goes on to set out five core beliefs that underpin its “high standards of behaviour and integrity”. The evidence that the Guardian is publishing this week – at the start of a two-year project intended to show just how the global tobacco industry works – suggests that the distance between the words and the deeds of this huge and powerful company is about the size of the distance from the developed to the developing world.

A generation of campaigners in western Europe and north America are familiar with the devious tactics that are now in play in Africa and Asia. The wickedly slow pace of change from 1949, when the link between smoking and cancer was first established, to the introduction of plain packaging in the UK nearly 70 years later, owes everything to the sustained campaign the industry fought against regulation that would limit the harm of smoking. It was fought in the public domain, in carefully placed reports that undermined medical research or questioned the impact of proposals like plain packaging. And it was fought privately, in privileged access to politicians, sometimes indirectly by other interested parties. The most notorious example was the Ecclestone affair in 1997, when a Labour pledge to ban tobacco advertising at all sports events was suddenly and inexplicably withdrawn. It soon emerged that the Formula One boss, Bernie Ecclestone, had donated £1m to Labour, and that there were hopes of more to come.

In the course of those 70 years of delay, millions of people will have taken up smoking and a significant number will have suffered and died because of it. Now the tobacco companies are fast exporting the insidious tactics that worked for so long in the markets of the global north to new ones in the global south. More than half of BAT’s sales are now in emerging markets.

Take the increasingly prosperous East African country of Kenya: its government signed the World Health Organisation’s Framework Convention on Tobacco Control in 2004, before it was officially adopted. Yet nearly 15 years later, multinational tobacco firms are still fighting to delay the introduction of anti-smoking laws. As one recent study found, the slower the process of legislation, the greater the scope for tobacco company influence. The WHO reports how companies sponsor sporting events for children, for example, and hand out cigarettes in shopping centres regardless of people’s age. Already, proportionately more Kenyan children are smoking than adults.

It’s not all about the companies. Part of the story is the low priority given to public health: in a country of 45 million people like Kenya, the anti-smoking budget is $45,000. But these are places where tobacco can do business. Tobacco taxes are vital revenue, so the tobacco companies claim that regulation will erode the tax base and provide new opportunities for the black market. And part of it is corruption, the purchase of influence.

As Bath University’s Tobacco Tactics website details, big tobacco’s attempts to delay the introduction of laws to limit the harm of tobacco across Africa follow a familiar pattern: the companies influence politicians, they intimidate tobacco farmers, and they use unrestrained advertising to promote smoking. The companies insist they are only ensuring that legislation is proportionate. These are weasel words. Their tactics are well-funded, well-rehearsed and slick. They worked for years in the old markets. But if tactics can be exported, so can campaigns. BAT is about to become one of the FTSE 100’s top three companies. Reputation matters. Shareholders have leverage – and they should prepare to use it.

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