Big Tobacco wants African nations to do its bidding

The industry will use every tactic to grow sales.

In Summary
  • The profits from this growth will flow back to wealthy transnational tobacco firms, while Africans are left to pay the price of tobacco’s harm.
  • This is an industry that often needles and cajoles governments to get what it wants.

There was a time when tobacco companies could market their deadly and addictive products with cartoon characters, svelte women and handsome cowboys. Today, such unscrupulous advertising has been outlawed in many countries. Now, there is increasing evidence that the purveyors of cigarettes and other tobacco and nicotine products look hungrily at Africa, a region with low tobacco use, a growing, youthful population, fewer regulations and, importantly, increased disposable income. For Big Tobacco, Africa could be the goose that lays the golden egg for decades to come.

The only barrier to the industry’s ambitions is governments implementing strong policies to deter tobacco use and protect health; so the industry works to influence and, ultimately, undermine those policy decisions. This problem came into sharp focus with the 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 across 57 countries, including nine in Africa, and evaluates governments’ progress, or lack of progress, in protecting policy.

Across Africa, the Index is a wake-up call to Big Tobacco’s tactics. This is an industry that often needles and cajoles 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 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 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 government bodies. In 2019, Zambia’s Finance minister officiated the opening of a new British American Tobacco factory, while in Sudan, the former President and the Minister of Industry were involved in a tobacco industry-sponsored scholarship programme. 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 companies that sell deadly products.

Big Tobacco’s interference can stall or derail tobacco control policies, while tax incentives flow freely. In 2019, there were no tax increases on tobacco in Ethiopia and Tanzania. The tender for a Track and Trace system to help reduce illicit tobacco in South Africa was delayed. Civil society also records attempts to influence policy that were ultimately unsuccessful: Uganda’s country report notes that BAT Uganda pressed upon the Minister of Trade to modify tobacco control regulations.

The industry will use every tactic at its disposal to grow sales in Africa. The profits from this growth will flow back to wealthy transnational tobacco companies, while Africans are left to pay the price of tobacco’s harm.

The Index highlights a strategic roadmap to halt the harm. Article 5.3 of the World Health Organization’s Framework Convention on Tobacco Control calls on governments to safeguard public health policies from industry influence. In a positive example, Uganda rose to rank in the top three nations globally for acting to prevent industry interference and passed one of the region’s most stringent tobacco control laws in the face of heavy tobacco industry pressure.

There is a lot of hope for Africa. We can stop the tobacco epidemic before it gains a bigger, deadlier foothold, if governments act now. It will require vigilance, transparency, and the demonstrated will of policymakers to push back the industry. It is time to put the African people and tobacco control policies before the tobacco industry’s vested interests.

Executive Secretary, African Tobacco Control Alliance