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As the British American Tobacco (BAT) celebrates another year of deadly profits on Wednesday, April 28, the Environmental Rights Action/Friends of the Earth Nigeria (ERA/FoEN) joined other anti-tobacco groups from Africa, United Kingdom and Latin America to demand government’s action to hold the corporation accountable.

Also on the heels of revelations of widespread bribery in Africa, the anti-tobacco group demanded that BAT be probed for the East African bribery scandal.

Speaking at a press briefing on Wednesday organised by ERA/FoEN in Lagos, Deputy Director, Akinbode Oluwafemi said, “As we speak today, British American Tobacco (BAT) is holding its Annual General Meeting (AGM) at Milton Court Concert Hall, Silk Street, in London, where it will announce huge profits from mortgaging the lungs of underage and mostly under-informed cigarette addicts.”

Catalogue of BAT Infractions

In 2015 the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) aired an investigation on its Panorama, which detailed a host of bribery and espionage activities perpetrated by BAT on the African continent. In the expose a whistleblower and former staff of the company revealed a shameful bribery scam contrived and carefully implemented to thwart life-saving legislations in Uganda, Kenya, Rwanda and Comoros Islands.

Paul Hopkins, who had worked for BAT in Kenya for 13 years described how BAT funded illegal corporate espionage and how its contractors bribed politicians and policymakers in the listed countries.

Emails Hopkins shared revealed the corporation made illegal payments running into thousands of dollars to compromise policy makers and in one case even demanded a draft copy of Burundi’s Tobacco Control Bill from its contact person in that country’s government to “accommodate.. amendments before the president signs.”

A Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (FCTC) representative from Burundi, Godefroid Kamwenubusa, and a representative from the Comoros Islands, Chaibou Bedja Abdou, were alleged to have also received $3,000 while former representative from Rwanda, Bonaventure Nzeyimana, was paid $20,000. In return for the illegal payment to Kamwenubusa, a Burundian senior civil servant, BAT also wanted a draft copy of the country’s Tobacco Control Bill with an e-mail to the government official asking to “accommodate any amendments before the president signs.”

During the airing of the investigation on BBC Panorama, experts from the University of Bath’s leading Tobacco Control Research Group (TCRG) were available for media comment and interviews.

The report drew global condemnation on BAT with Dr. Vera Da Costa e Silva, from the WHO, saying BAT was irresponsible for using bribery to profit at the cost of people’s lives. She recommended that the corporation be investigated by the government and punished accordingly.

Undermining legislation

In April 2015 BAT Kenya Limited filed a petition at the Constitutional Court in the High Court of Kenya, Nairobi asking the court to declare the Tobacco Control Regulations which had been developed by the Kenyan Ministry of Health to facilitate the implementation of Tobacco Control Act 2007 as null and void either in its entirety or some particular sections of the regulation.

In the petition, BAT argued that the due process was not followed in the making of the regulations and that particular sections of the regulations contravened their rights as outlined in the Bill of Rights and other Articles of the Constitution of Kenya 2010 and that they were therefore unconstitutional.

Before the suit, the regulations had been tabled in Parliament on 5th December 2014 and gazette as is required and were to take effect on 5 June 2015.

On 4th June 2015, a day before the Tobacco Control Regulations could take effect, a Judge issued conservatory orders suspending the implementation of the regulations (at the request of BAT) until the case is heard and determined

Among others, BAT wanted a regulation limiting interaction between the tobacco industry and public officers declared unconstitutional. That section of the regulation is in consonance with Article 5.3 of the World Health Organisation Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (WHO-FCTC) which recommends that Parties “Prohibit government partnership or collaboration with the tobacco industry”

In the final ruling, the court ruled among others, that, according to the documents presented to it, there were various meetings during the framing of the regulations that BAT was represented in, and consulted.

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Reports of public forums and other consultations were shared and the regulations were presented to Parliament which offered another platform for public participation through the Parliamentary process. It noted that in effect, there was sufficient public participation, hence, the Tobacco Control Regulations 2014 cannot be declared null and void on the basis of lack of sufficient public participation, among others.

Blackmail                                                           

In Uganda BAT, in conjunction with other leading tobacco companies, used considerable financial clout to oppose Dr. Chris Baryomunsi’s private member’s bill in 2014 aimed at curbing smoking in Uganda.

In a letter to Baryomunsi, BAT Uganda said that it will no longer do business with the 709 farmers in his Kihihi constituency that it normally buys from because the legislation he sponsored – and a related plan to raise tobacco taxes – has rendered the arrangement “increasingly less economically viable”.

BAT aim for writing Baryomunsi was to instigate farmers against him.

Bayormunsi’s bill recommends large health warnings covering 75% of the face of cigarette packets, prohibits smoking within 100 metres of public buildings, prohibit advertising, ban point of sale display marketing, raises the smoking age from 18 to 21 and limits interaction between the government and tobacco lobby.

Tobacco farmers’ groups, obviously backed by BAT lobbyists, claim the measures will put them out of business.

Oluwafemi however said, the above findings show that the company works openly and behind the scenes to thwart the WHO-FCTC.

“We therefore stand in full solidarity with our allies across the globe demanding BAT be probed for the East African bribery scandal. The probe must go beyond East Africa.

“The findings hitherto mentioned challenge governments on the continent, and particularly the Nigerian government to wake up and take action. We will not forget in a hurry, the torturous process of getting the National Tobacco Control Bill (now Tobacco Control Act) into law just as we will not forget the tens of hurriedly-formed BAT front groups deployed to fight taxation, ban on Tobacco Advertising Promotion and Sponsorships (TAPS) and other life-saving provisions from getting into the final document.”

ERA/FoEN also debunked the myth that a tobacco bill with strong provisions as recommended by the WHO-FCTC will lead to job and revenue losses.

The group demand that the federal government should. beam searchlight on BAT operations in West Africa and particularly in Nigeria where the corporation is involved in so-called anti-smuggling campaign and lobby to thwart increase in taxes.

“Government agencies should investigate all tax waivers or grants that were granted to BAT by past governments.

That government investigate all past dealings between BAT and government agencies with a view to prosecute any infraction against our laws. The Nigerian government, particularly the Ministry of Health remain unintimidated as it comes up with resolutions for the effective implementation of the National Tobacco Control Act.

“We also recommend a speedy drafting of the recommendations. BAT infractions and that of Philip Morris International which is identified to have illicitly imported cigarettes into Nigeria from Senegal be investigated and sanctioned appropriately,” Oluwafemi said.

Also speaking at the briefing, Head, Media & Communication, Mr Philip Jakpor said, when the NGO visited one of the villages tobacco is planted, “the farmers said they were not meant to speak with strangers. It shows that the truth about their dealings is not known by the public.

“Action must be taken and the more there is delay, the more they are allowed to take people’s lives for granted.”

Adding, Oluwafemi said, “one issue we cannot tire talking about is the menace of tobacco which continues to claim lives at an alarming rate globally.”

According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), about six million people die annually from tobacco –induced illnesses and what we know as second hand smoke is responsible for over 600,000 yearly deaths in non-smokers.

“Increasing deaths from tobacco correspond with huge profits the tobacco corporation make from marketing their deadly ware,” Oluwafemi said.