Beware of Big Tobacco tactics to enslave Africa

Tuesday, November 24th, 2020 00:00 |
Tobacco farming.

Leonce Dieudonné Sessou  

There was a time when tobacco companies could market their deadly and addictive products with cartoon characters, svelte women and handsome cowboys. 

Decades later, with growing public awareness of the harms of tobacco use, such unscrupulous advertising has been outlawed in many countries. 

Now, there is increasing evidence that the purveyors of cigarettes and other tobacco products look hungrily at Africa, a region ripe for expanding demand for their products.

The continent has low tobacco use compared to other continents. It has a growing, youthful population, fewer regulations and, importantly, increased disposable income.

The only barrier to the industry’s ambitions is governments implementing strong policies to deter tobacco, so the industry works to influence and, ultimately, undermine those policy decisions.

This problem came into sharp focus with the recent release of the Global Tobacco Industry Interference Index, 2020 compiled by the Global Center for Good Governance in Tobacco Control from civil society reports, and published by STOP, a global tobacco industry watchdog.

The Index looks at Big Tobacco’s efforts to sway policymakers around the world and evaluates governments’ progress in protecting policy. Nine of the 57 nations reviewed are in Africa. 

From Nigeria and Ethiopia to South Africa and Uganda, the Index is a wake-up call to Big Tobacco’s tactics.

This is an industry that often needles and cajoles African governments to get what it wants, while also sweet-talking policymakers through disingenuous corporate social responsibility initiatives.

The goal is the same: To change policies, delay or weaken tobacco control laws, and to win lucrative financial incentives. 

The tobacco industry embeds itself anywhere in the government, where it can gain an advantage.

In Nigeria, for example, the industry sits in the standard-setting organisation for tobacco products while in Ethiopia, the National Tobacco Enterprise (NTE) is allowed to comment on tobacco control laws before they are passed.

Japan Tobacco International, one of the world’s largest tobacco companies that is active in at least seven African nations, bought a controlling share of the NTE.  

Likewise, the industry uses corporate donations and unnecessary interactions to establish cozy relationships with non-health government bodies.

In 2019, Zambia’s Finance Minister officiated the opening of a new  British American Tobacco (BAT) factory, while in Sudan, the former President and the Minister of Industry were involved in a tobacco industry-sponsored scholarship program.

More recently in Kenya, BAT donated 300,000 litres of sanitiser to government agencies around the same time the government listed tobacco as an “essential product” during the Covid-19 pandemic.

These activities provide positive media coverage for firms that sell deadly products.

In many cases cited in the Global Tobacco Index 2020, Big Tobacco’s interference has stalled or derailed tobacco control policies, while tax incentives flow freely.

In 2019, there were no tax increases on tobacco in Ethiopia and Tanzania. The Global Index is based on detailed country reports.

South Africa’s report notes that interference led the South Africa Revenue Service to extend the deadline for the country’s proposed Track and Trace system, that would help to reduce illicit tobacco. The tender has since been cancelled.

Civil society also records attempts to influence policy that were ultimately unsuccessful: Uganda’s report notes that BAT Uganda pressed upon the Minister of Trade to modify one of the region’s strongest tobacco control regulations.

The message is clear. The industry will use every tactic at its disposal to grow sales in Africa.

The profits from will flow back to wealthy transnational tobacco firms, while Africans are left to pay the price of tobacco’s harm. 

There is a lot of hope for Africa. We can stop the tobacco epidemic before it gains a bigger, deadlier foothold, as it did in Europe, Asia and Americas, if governments act now to stop Big Tobacco’s interference.

It will require vigilance, transparency, and the will of policy makers. It is time to put the African people and tobacco control policies before the tobacco industry’s vested interests.  — The writer is Executive Secretary, African Tobacco Control Alliance

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