Several shocking new reports, released by tobacco industry watchdog STOP and covering whistleblower accounts and leaked industry documents, have laid out the latest damning evidence of the tobacco industry’s relentless campaign of dirty dealings in Africa. Tobacco giant British American Tobacco (BAT) apparently ran a mass surveillance operation to spy on its rivals, as well as doling out hundreds of thousands of dollars in questionable payments.
Cash payoffs and spies masquerading as an anti-smuggling task force
Among the allegations is the explosive claim that a contractor hired by British American Tobacco (BAT) helped broker a proposed pay-off of between $300,000 and $500,000 for notorious Zimbabwean dictator Robert Mugabe shortly before his re-election in 2013. The bribe was supposedly aimed at securing the release of specific individuals from jail. “I had to make it clear that they’re going to expect a nice thick envelope of notes,” said the contractor-turned-informant.
At the time of the alleged discussions, BAT was linked to a South African security contractor that had been engaged to curb the activities of competitors in the domestic tobacco market. In 2012, three directors of the security firm had been arrested and charged with conspiracy to commit robbery; leaked documents show that the bribery offer had been planned, with BAT’s knowledge, to absolve the directors of any wrongdoing while also protecting BAT’s name.
To make matters worse, allegations have also emerged that BAT oversaw a network of nearly 200 paid informants— a network ostensibly tasked with stamping out the illicit cigarette trade, but which was in practice engaged in attacking BAT’s rivals using techniques on the wrong side of the law. Researchers say they had identified more than 230 “questionable payments” made throughout the Democratic Republic of Congo, Kenya, Malawi, Rwanda, Uganda, Tanzania, Sudan, Zambia, Burundi and Comoros.
“BAT’s potentially corrupt practices in Africa were not just the work of a few bad apples,” argued Andrew Rowell, a researcher at the University of Bath’s Tobacco Control Research Group (TCRG), “the geographic spread of the activity, the infrastructure used and the number of senior staff involved suggest that BAT’s payments were routine.”
A long history of thwarting tobacco control measures
These reports are only the latest in a series of devastating blows for BAT’s credibility, yet have shone a fresh light on Big Tobacco’s willingness to use any means necessary to capture Africa’s valuable tobacco market. In Kenya, for example, BAT has for nearly 20 years successfully delayed planned regulations that would restrict the advertisement and sale of cigarettes. In its bid to keep millions of smokers hooked, the company has managed to fight public health measures at every level of the legal system.
In the same vein, a consortium of tobacco companies last year took the South African government to court in an effort to overturn a ban on the sale of alcohol and tobacco products during the Covid-19 pandemic. The South Africa Tobacco Transformation Alliance (SATTA), Japan Tobacco International (JPI) and British American Tobacco South Africa (BATSA) together claimed the ban was an “unfair infringement” on citizens’ rights, all the while profiting off of the black market boom elicited by the ban.
In fact, BAT relied on the illegal tobacco trade as early as the 1980s and 1990s to gain a foothold in the African market. Doing so helped the company to leverage government negotiations, compete against other transnational tobacco interests, and evade local import restrictions. Contemporary evidence indicates that nothing much has changed in the way of industry tactics.
Twisting the fight against illicit tobacco trade
Indeed, the tobacco industry has long sought to subvert the global fight against the illicit tobacco trade in order to protect its own interests. South Africa, for example, has struggled to issue an appropriate tender for a track and trace system that would see tobacco products marked with unique identifiers in line with global standards, an important tool in the fight against the parallel tobacco trade. Tobacco companies led the charge against the first tender plans, slamming a “rushed process” that they argued would impose regulatory burdens on small retailers. The Fair Trade Independent Tobacco Association hit back, arguing the initial tender was only shelved due to transnational tobacco companies’ undue influence over the government.
At the same time, a former security provider for BAT said in 2018 that the firm would use SARS and South African police to raid “opposition factories, warehouses and places that sold [competitors’] cigarettes.” Any form of a symbiotic relationship between a tobacco company such as BAT and SARS would be, explicitly, in breach of the WHO’s Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (FCTC), which underscores that the industry should not be involved in tobacco control measures.
Worse still, evidence has shown that BAT pursued extensive interference within SARS even before a track and trace tender had been announced, including a smear campaign against a senior SARS official tasked with investigating South Africa’s illicit tobacco trade. Allegations made at the time, lodged by individuals linked to BAT, conveniently saw the suspension of SARS’ entire executive committee and the investigation into the illicit market scrapped.
These latest revelations only bring home the fact that tobacco industry titans have their own interests exclusively at heart. The industry’s professed interest in stamping out the illicit tobacco trade, then, should be seen for what it is: a barely disguised attempt to thwart public health initiatives for the umpteenth time.