Industry giant British American Tobacco (BAT) has doled out payments to dozens of individuals and conducted 'potentially unlawful surveillance' to tighten its market grip on the African continent, according to two reports published today, Tuesday, 14th of September, by tobacco industry watchdogs.
Described by researchers as the "powerful" and "explosive", the two reports, released by STOP - a global tobacco industry watchdog in partnership with The Tobacco Control Research Group at the University of Bath - follows the analysis of whistleblower documents and court records.
The researchers found that in order to maintain BAT's tobacco monopoly in South Africa, BAT and a private contractor may have repeatedly crossed the line of legality to undermine competitors and disrupt operations.
It included the use of a BAT surveillance and informant network in South Africa.
The reports claim that BAT appeared to be operating "as if it were above the law," according to the report on South Africa.
The documents gathered for the report suggest that in South Africa, BAT hired private contractors, under the pretense of anti-smuggling efforts, to carry out military-style surveillance and operations to disrupt its competitors.
"Evidence appears to connect BAT to hand-delivered cash, cars, per diems and campaign donations to dozens of politicians, civil servants, journalists as well as people working at competitor companies," said the report.
Pay to push cigarettes on Africans
These payments "may have helped" to influence health policies in key African countries, too.
"We spent years of analysis of the payments, the documents and we came to conclusion that 226 payments totaling US$66,000 were made by the company between 2008-2013," says Andy Rowell, Senior Research Fellow at the University of Bath's Tobacco Control Research Group during a press conference. He has called on the payments to be further examined.
All of this culminates in a push to sell cigarettes to Africans--products known to cause tobacco-related illness, death and economic harm--across the region.
The second report is based on six years of work and outlines how the company made hundreds of payment that took multiple forms. Both reports came out after looking at tens of thousands of leaked documents.
Did #BritishAmericanTobacco try to buy influence in Africa? #DirtyMoney #ExposeTobacco New reports suggest the tobacco company made 200+ questionable payments that undermined competitors and health policies in at least 11 #African countries. Learn more: https://t.co/nsO5HzLDYS - Corporate Accountability (@StopCorpAbuse) September 14, 2021
The whistleblower documents connected to BAT's work in East and Central Africa revealed evidence of questionable payments made in Burundi, Comoros, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Kenya, Malawi, Rwanda, Sudan, Tanzania, Uganda and Zambia.
Researchers identified 236 payments made between 2008 and 2013 totaling US $601,502 that were allegedly used to try to influence policy and sabotage competitors.
"And in nearly 25 years of working in tobacco industry--I must have read in excess of millions of documents--and to me these are the most powerful. They are the most explosive and they are the ones to demand answers from BAT and regulators," says Rowell, during the press conference.
Contributing to deaths across the continent
Tobacco dependency is growing in Africa despite efforts to stamp it out, as the industry sees the continent as the future for its market, considering its large youth population, says Professor Lekan Ayo-Yusuf, deputy vice-chancellor at the Sefako Makgatho Health Sciences University in Pretoria.
"We all know with the potential for the industry to make profits is that Africa will pay the price," says Ayo-Yusuf during the press conference, adding that the industry is trying to break through the stigma of smoking in Africa.
"Companies like BAT with their major shareholders in Britain and USA will take proceeds of the profits while the debts and the funerals and the tears and aftermaths of deaths and disabilities will remain on the African continent," he adds.
While the allegations of corruption are not new, what is most explosive about these new ones is the scale of their deeds, says Rachel Kitonyo Devotsu, Regional Coordinator for Africa at the McCabe Centre for Law and Cancer in Melbourne, Australia.
"It just shows that BAT is willing to work across borders and across different areas of tobacco control policy to achieve its agenda," Devotsu told RFI after the briefing, saying that this also added up to interference with states revenue and collection.
"When they try to control illicit trade in tobacco products and security concerns over smuggling and related transnational crimes, regulators must take action," she adds.
She says that in light of the revelations, tobacco control advocates and the media need to keep showcasing the allegations so that potentially illegal activities of BAT are not swept under the carpet.
"The UK government needs to ensure it has evaluated all the available evidence including speaking to government officials, whistleblowers and enforcement agencies in the African countries mentioned in the reports before it concludes definitively that there is insufficient evidence to hold BAT accountable," says Devotsu.
"Local law enforcement agencies in the countries mentioned in the reports should seek assistance from the UK government to investigate and prosecute locally," she adds.
The reports comes on the heels of an ongoing court case in the high court in London against BAT and Imperial Brands on the allegations of the exploitation of Malawian farmers and their children as a result of their drive for profits.