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Activists fuming at Marlboro price cut

Anti-smoking lobby says Philip Morris’ marketing strategy will result in more smokers in Senegal, a poor country where one in three adults smokes

Philip Morris International has slashed the price of its best-selling Marlboro brand in Senegal, a 40 per cent discount that has left health officials and activists fuming and triggered calls to toughen tobacco laws.

The decision to cut the price of a pack of 20 Marlboros – the world’s top-selling cigarette sold in 180 countries – to a mere 400 CFA francs (HK$6.14) from 650 CFA francs makes Senegal the second cheapest place to buy the brand in the world, behind only Zimbabwe, where the same packet costs 60 US cents.

“This drop is unacceptable. Senegal is the only country in the world where one can cut the price of cigarettes and nothing ever happens,” said oncologist Abdou Aziz Kasse, who also heads the Senegalese League Against Tobacco.

Philip Morris International, based in Lausanne, Switzerland, said the move was aimed at making Marlboros competitive with other cigarettes sold in the West African state.

“Cigarettes sold at or under CFA 400 have been available for many years, and even prior to the price change by Marlboro accounted for the majority of the cigarettes sold in Senegal,” it said.

“The recommended retail price of Marlboro was adjusted to this level so that Marlboro cigarettes can better compete for a share of these existing adult smokers in Senegal.”

A similar Marlboro pack costs about HK$50 in Hong Kong, HK$16 on the mainland, and anywhere from US$4.50 to US$10 in the US. The most expensive places to buy a packet of Marlboro 20s are Qatar and Australia, where it costs about US$15.

The Senegalese League Against Tobacco, which groups 15 anti-smoking bodies, has said it will ask the government to force the tobacco giant to reverse the decision.

“Tobacco companies are losing the fight in the West” where anti-smoking laws are gaining teeth, but the opposite is true of Africa, Kasse said.

The outrage has spilled over to other countries, including the US, where Philip Morris has its headquarters.

The US chapter of the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids said: “Senegal suffers from alarming smoking rates, with nearly one out of every three adults and an estimated 20 per cent of youth already smoking.”

Its president, Matthew Myers, added: “It is imperative that Senegal’s government take action to counter PMI’s price ploy by increasing the taxes on tobacco products.

“Higher taxes are particularly effective in reducing tobacco use among vulnerable populations, such as youth and low-income smokers. Higher cigarette prices are scientifically proven to prevent young people from starting to smoke and encourage smokers to quit.”

Marlboro was launched in 1924 as a woman’s cigarette, based on the slogan “Mild as May”. The filter had a printed red band around it to hide lipstick stains.

It soon morphed into a macho cigarette with the iconic Marlboro man – a rugged cowboy – featured on billboards, magazines and television screens across the world.

Senegal’s Health Minister, Modou Fada Diagne, has denounced the decision as “catastrophic for the health of the people”.

The National Federation of Parents of Senegalese Students would “oppose it forcefully”, its chief, Bakary Badiane, said.

Badiane, who is vice-president of a continental body of parents of school pupils, said he could “take the fight to an African level to avoid the dangers that threaten children”.

Smoking can lead to lung cancer, heart disease and emphysema.

Cigarette prices were freed from state controls in 1994 in Senegal. A source in the commerce ministry said Philip Morris International’s decision was aimed “at paying lower taxes”.

Under the West African nation’s tax regime, high-end cigarettes such as Marlboro attract 45 per cent tax, while cheaper cigarettes are taxed at only 20 per cent.

Senegal ratified the World Health Organisation’s anti-smoking treaty, which came into force in 2005.

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