Big Tobacco now out to fully exploit Africa

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

Decades later, with growing evidence and 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 and nicotine 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.

For Big Tobacco, Africa could be the goose that lays golden eggs 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 recent release of the Global Tobacco Industry Interference Index 2020, compiled by the Global Centre 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, or lack of 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 wakeup 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 laws, and to win lucrative financial incentives.

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

In Nigeria, 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 countries, bought a controlling share of the NTE.

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

South Africa’s country report notes that interference led the SA Revenue Service to extend the deadline for the proposed track and trace system that would help reduce illicit tobacco.

The tender has since been cancelled. The message throughout this research is clear: the industry will use every tactic to grow sales in Africa while Africans are left to pay the price.

Sessou is executive secretary of African Tobacco Control Alliance.

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