Photograph — WHO FCTC

“As countries step up efforts to strengthen their tobacco control measures, the tobacco industry is also intensifying its interference.” – Global Tobacco Industry Interference Index 2020.

Sandisiwe Kela started smoking when she was 15, and by age 18, she smoked every day. As a curious kid, she could only fight the urge to try out a stick for so long. Especially not with the appealing cigarette advert she always sees on television.

Over time, smoking crept into every aspect of her life, but she did not realize she was addicted until her parents found out. The pungent smell in her breath and on her clothes became embarrassing at that point. She realized her parents would be sceptical about her using other drugs, and she was also concerned about her health, so she quit.

Her health improved while she abstained from smoking, but she could only do so for so long. She needed to indulge in her guilty pleasure once more. One lighter to a stick was all it took to rekindle her servitude. Breaking free became more difficult this time. She started having trouble breathing, but she could not save herself. She was only 21 years old, but she was fighting for her life.

Sandisiwe’s story might have turned out differently had she not been sold a cigarette at such a young age.

According to Joseph E. Stiglitz, recipient of the Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences, 2008, the tobacco market competes on addiction.“… the most addictive products win. With research, they [firms], like the cigarette companies, may find out which of their ingredients is most effective in increasing sales/addiction … they loath to give up these profit opportunities, no matter the costs to society,” Stiglitz said.

While wealthier nations recorded substantial declines in smoking, Africa’s smoking population has been on the increase. According to the latest edition of the Tobacco Atlas, the number of smokers in Nigeria alone is expected to increase by seven million by 2025. Religion and culture have been gatekeepers of tobacco adoption, but its walls are not high enough.

Increased regulation, monitoring, and taxation have helped fan off smoking in high-income countries. However, cigarette consumption in Sub-Saharan Africa has soared to 250 billion. In Lesotho, cigarette smoking spiked from 15 per cent of its population in 2004 to 54 per cent in 2015.

It is easy to say that Africans are buying more cigarettes just because they love them. But a more thorough look shows that Africa’s tobacco industry does not thrive solely on consumer affinity. The World Health Organisation has revealed that no fewer than 146,000 Africans die each year from tobacco-related diseases. The distribution of a substance behind such a high death rate should not be without a leash. Unfortunately, the industry does not see it that way. They want to profit at all costs, and if your lungs are the cost, so be it.

Behold Santa, bearing sticks

Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) has always been a colourful way for private companies to give back to society. An already fattened company gets to become Santa without the red suit. What better way is there to shut the mouths of anti-capitalists, right? The tobacco industry does not see it that way. It only sees CSR as a chance to run its claws through society till its marks are all over.

The COVID-19 pandemic did not just take lives, it took the livelihoods of many Africans. With several families in dire need of sanctuary from the scourge of hunger and lack, the tobacco industry masked itself as a saviour to intensify its market penetration.

A report by the Global Tobacco Index unfolds this storyline. While going through the motions of good-hearted acts to re-establish its image as a part of the solution, the industry was simultaneously lobbying governments not to restrict its business and even declaring tobacco an “essential” item during the pandemic. Last year, Kenya’s government designated tobacco products as “essential products” in the foods and beverages category. This meant that logistics providers had protection and special permits to transport them during the lockdown.

Also, in Jordan, three days into the complete lockdown, the government instructed city buses to deliver bread and other essentials directly to neighbourhoods. The Minister of Labour then announced the government would initiate the distribution of cigarettes to smokers as well. Accordingly, Jordan documented over a 50 per cent increase in the consumption of tobacco during the lockdown.

Dr Adriana Blanco Marquizo, Head, WHO FCTC Convention Secretariat, said, “The tobacco industry has a well-documented history of deception and of capitalizing on humanitarian crises, and it is using the pandemic to attempt to improve its deteriorating public image. But even during times of great need, we must remember the irreconcilable conflict between the interests of the tobacco industry and those of public health”.

Conversely, several governments took action to protect public health. India and South Africa, for example, banned the sale of tobacco products during the pandemic as a measure to protect public health. Also, in the Philippines, three municipalities placed a ban on the sale of cigarettes. Mexico restricted the sale of e-cigarettes, while the USA listed vape, smoking and cigar shops as non-essential businesses that must close.

At the table to stay on tables

The health hazards of tobacco products are well within sight. Cigarette packs come with warnings of potential damage to smokers’ health. So, how do tobacco companies ensure that ashtrays are full at multiple tables? One way is that they gain a seat at the policy development table. This way, they can always ensure that healthcare regulations do not put them out of business. Countries with state-owned enterprises, such as Japan, China, and Lao PDR, allow the tobacco industry to have a say in the development of tobacco control measures. 

In Tanzania, the industry is so well-protected that there has been a delay in tobacco control legislation for several years. The tobacco industry has also held tobacco control legislation hostage in Zambia since 2009. In 2018, a Tobacco and Nicotine Products bill was drafted but has yet to be tabled. In Nigeria, the tobacco industry is represented in the standards organization (SON), which determines the standards of tobacco products.

Global Tobacco Index also reported that the tobacco companies also tried to influence the WHO FCTC Conference of the Parties (COP). The COP’s position on Heated Tobacco Products (HTPs) and Electronic Nicotine Delivery Systems (ENDS) was concerning for them. So they came through the Colombian Department of Foreign Affairs. Before the eighth session of the COP in 2018, an industry document got leaked to the public. The leaked document revealed, the top three transnational tobacco companies requested the Colombian Minister of Foreign Affairs to adopt certain sketchy positions during the COP negotiations. Some of their requests include:

a. Insist that HTPs and ENDS are reduced-risk products.

b. Oppose policies regarding nicotine reduction. This increase smuggling as consumers will prefer cigarettes with higher amounts of nicotine.

c. According to the industry, they should be involved in the policymaking process.

Because of the health risks associated with tobacco products, each pack of cigarettes should include a pictorial health warning (PHW). This is to make the warning more visible to consumers than a small text at the bottom of the pack. However, legislation to increase the PHW sizes on cigarette packs often gets defeated, and some countries sell cigarettes without any PHWs. This demonstrates that the tobacco industry would prefer their customers unaware of the health risks associated with using these products.

Getting paid to kill

The tobacco industry already makes a fortune from sales. However, their menace does not stop there. Players in this industry boycott law to ensure that they make as much money as possible from the business of slowly killing people. In several countries, the tobacco industry successfully influenced departments under the Ministry of Finance to oppose tax increases.

Governments also appear to be comfortable with treating this industry like their blue-eyed boy. The tobacco industry receives a buffet of incentives that benefit its business. Tax exemptions, no increase in tobacco tax and lower levels of taxation on certain tobacco products are typical benefits given to the tobacco industry.

International travellers are often allowed to purchase duty-free cigarettes, which benefits the tobacco industry through increased sales while depriving the government of tax revenues. Only a few countries, such as Brunei and Sri Lanka, have removed the duty-free status of cigarettes. Zambia excluded VAT on green leaf tobacco in 2018. In 2019, there was no tax increase on tobacco in Ethiopia and Tanzania.

A breath of fresh air

Since 2004, countries including Norway, New Zealand, Uruguay, Malta, Italy, Sweden, Scotland, Bhutan, Lithuania, and the British Virgin Islands have gone smoke-free, protecting the health of millions by banning smoking in public places. Some have even placed outright bans on the sale of tobacco.

In 2009, Colombia extended its anti-smoking regulation to include indoor workplaces and public places. The use of terms like “mild” and “light” in advertisements and packaging was also prohibited. For many, seeing the airways free of carbon monoxide and ammonia from cigarettes would be a huge relief. However, the fate of the tobacco industry does not lie directly in the hands of civil society.

An outright ban on tobacco sales in Africa might be a long shot. However, governments can prevent the tobacco industry from policy interference. To achieve this, governments must be steadfast in their tobacco control policies. Unnecessary interactions with the tobacco industry must be clipped, and interactions with the industry should be made more transparent. Incentives for the tobacco industry needs to stop. Tax exemptions for tobacco companies, and duty-free status for tobacco products, need to be curtailed. However, all of this will only happen if Africa has leaders who put the welfare of the citizens above revenue.

Written by Oluwatosin Ogunjuyigbe

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