Since the first American explorers brought tobacco back to Europe at the turn of the 16th century, smoking has always been a first-world problem. The product may have been grown by slaves in the Americas, or farmers in Africa and Asia, but it was always marketed to a wealthy Euro-American audience.
Yet now Big Tobacco is shifting focus, driven by declining smoking rates in its core markets. New research shows the industry is ramping up production in Africa, attempting to exploit its growing wealth and lax tobacco regulation. This is just the latest evidence of manufacturers’ growing infatuation with the developing world, where smoking is, worryingly, already on the rise. Now it’s time for the global community to take action, before the industry gets an iron grip.
The latest research from academics in Cape Town, sampling 22 African countries, found that tobacco use increased by a startling 44% between 1990 and 2012. In part, this is a simple reflection of demographic change: Africa’s population increased by nearly 60% between 1995 and 2015, while its GDP increased five-fold. With poverty rates declining, millions of Africans have joined the consuming class, giving them the power to buy cigarettes.
Yet the rise in smokers also reflects a concerted effort from the tobacco industry, which has rushed to capitalize on Africa’s development. Over the 22-year period in question, cigarette production in Africa increased by 106%, thanks largely to new production hubs created in South Africa, Kenya, Nigeria, Egypt and Algeria.
In its scramble for African smokers, Big Tobacco has adopted some distinctly unsavory tactics. The Guardian claims lobbyists have threatened at least eight African governments to tone down tobacco regulations: in one notorious case, British American Tobacco was able to delay vital control measures in Kenya by 15 years. It is even reported that tobacco companies have conspired with local militias and corrupt government officials to gain influence.
This strategy is echoed in Southeast Asia, where the industry has bullied countries like Malaysia and Indonesia into blocking tax increases, and used licensing agreements to tie the government’s hands in Laos. It’s all horribly reminiscent of the Victorian age, when burgeoning Western empires used money to trap their African and Asian colonies in a web of clientelism – then tightened their grip through intimidation and legalese.
The rationale for Big Tobacco’s 21st century colonialism is simple: its perennial market is becoming increasingly hostile. In the 50 years since America banned tobacco slots on TV and radio, more than 80 countries have banned all cigarette advertising. Many have also banned smoking in public places, and raised taxes to make smoking prohibitively expensive. Yet many developing countries have been slow to adopt such regulations.
The disparity is particularly evident in taxation: the average price of the most popular cigarettes in many African and Asian countries is less than $2 per pack. In the UK, one of the costliest places in the world to smoke, it’s nearly $12. Only a handful of developing countries have banned smoking in public places; furthermore, hardly any have imposed advertising blackouts, and the tobacco industry has propagated its message furiously. A study from the WHO found over 80 times more tobacco advertising in poorer countries than their affluent counterparts, much of it targeted at children and young people.
If developing countries do try to introduce regulations, Big Tobacco can simply go the legal route, bringing its greater financial muscle to bear. Bill Gates and Michael Bloomberg may have launched a $4 million fund to help poorer countries defend themselves, but given that the ‘big four’ tobacco firms make around $100 billion in revenue every year, it’s a bit like trying to take down a battleship with an air rifle.
The Cape Town researchers shows the industry’s aggressive tactics are already having a major effect. In fact, of the 2018 countries which witnessed an increase in smoking between 2000 and 2015, 17 were in Africa or Southeast Asia. Furthermore, smoking is now more common among young people than adults in countries such as Ethiopia and Senegal, so these increases are unlikely to be temporary. Analysts suggest that, if no action is taken, the number of annual tobacco-related deaths will rise to more than 8 million by 2030.
The world is at least attempting to mount a united front. The WHO’s Framework Convention on Tobacco Control, adopted in 2003, pledges to provide a universal set of standards to tame Big Tobacco. Earlier this year its first legally binding instrument, an anti-smuggling directive known as the Illicit Trade Protocol, came into force, and several signatories are now taking decisive steps. The EU has drawn up proposals for a ‘track and trace’ system to mark all cigarette packets and ensure they can be monitored. If the system proves effective, it could inspire the developing world: in fact, Kenya – despite the unrelenting industry pressure – has already introduced its own highly effective version of track and trace.
Yet before the EU’s track and trace system has even been enacted, there are signs that the tobacco industry is insinuating a way into it. Recent analysis from the University of Bath found that the ‘big four’ tobacco firms have conspired to foist their own version of track-and-trace on EU officials, using ‘front groups’ to spread the false impression that it is independent. The academics also state that industry has paid for misleading data to blame smaller competitors for smuggling – yet, they add, the industry giants are themselves responsible for two-thirds of the illicit market.
Now, as participants to the FCTC prepare for their eighth biannual summit in Geneva, it’s crucial that the EU – and the rest of the signatories – stand firm. The wealthy Western states need to put Big Tobacco in its place, and prove to the developing world that they can tame the cigarette industry through concerted, unified action. As the tobacco industry tries to foist modern-day colonialism on Africa and Asia, it’s urgent that the old colonial powers come to their aid.