Africa’s Tobacco Epidemic

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This page was originally written by the TCRG for The Guardian‘s Sustainable Business website and was published on 16 October 2014. It gives background information on tobacco companies’ expansion into Africa.

Market expansion into emerging economies

Since the World Health Organisation adopted its landmark Framework Convention on Tobacco Control,1 which entered into force in 2005, many countries passed legislation to restrict the marketing and sale of tobacco products. These restrictions, in combination with increasing awareness of the consequences of smoking and a growing understanding of the ethically questionable actions of tobacco companies, have led to decreases in tobacco sales in Europe, Australia, North America and Latin America.2

To protect their profits, transnational tobacco companies (TTCs) began shifting their business to relatively untapped markets in parts of the world where the opportunity for growth is largely unrestricted. Nowhere is this underexploited prospect as ripe for the picking as Africa. TTCs are expanding into African countries, where, excluding South Africa, the tobacco market grew by almost 70% through the 1990s and first decade of the 21st century.3

As they expand into new African markets, TTCs exert their political and economic influence to shape business environments that are profitable for them but costly to these nations.4 Many countries on the continent are characterised by political instability, social inequality, and a weak legislative environment- the perfect setting for the industry to sell cheaply and market its products with limited restriction.

Exploitation of Africa

While tobacco consumption globally is decreasing, by 2025 the number of smokers in Africa is anticipated to rise by nearly 25 from 2010 levels.56 This is the largest expected increases in the world (See also Eastern Mediterranean).

Internal industry documents, such as those of BAT, reveal that tobacco companies have strategically planned their expansion across Africa for over two decades, seeking to “aggressively and consistently” exploit these “profitable opportunities”.7 To expand their consumer base, they target new prospective smokers in their promotional marketing, particularly women and younger groups. Often the methods of marketing and selling their products, such as selling single stick cigarettes and sponsoring youth-oriented events, involve violating international frameworks1 and even the industry’s own mandatory marketing principles.8

A whole different ball game

Over the past few decades, TTCs such as BAT, Philip Morris and Japan Tobacco International have perfected political tactics and economic techniques to stall, influence, and where necessary bypass restrictions on their business.4

In Africa, TTCs have been accused of: “blackmailing” politicians pushing for tobacco control; fuelling poverty by buying tobacco leaf from hundreds of thousands of farmers at paltry prices;9101112 offering free cigarettes to children to try to hook them;13 hiring young ‘cigarette girls’ to attractively endorse their products;14 gaining the trust of communities through corporate social responsibility activities such as providing electricity for small towns or providing hospital supplies for children;15 causing expansive environmental damage to natural resources;161718 and infiltrating government bodies at the national to international level to thwart attempts to regulate their business practices.1920

A smoky future in Africa

The situation in Africa looks set to get worse. In 2013, about 77 million African adults smoked. If the tobacco industry is allowed to operate largely unregulated, this is expected to increase more than 7 times over to 572 million within the century.3 The economic, social, and public health ramifications of this growth would be unprecedented.21223It is not just public health that would suffer. The industry is responsible for up to 4% of global deforestation23– 12% in Southern Africa16 and, as of 2008, 600 million trees were being cut down to facilitate tobacco production every year.18 Tobacco leaf degrades the soil of more nutrients than many other crops, often making soil unviable to grow food essentials.18 Estimates suggest that if the land used to grow tobacco was instead used to cultivate food crops, 10-20 million people could be consistently fed.18 This is critical since many of the tobacco growing nations in Africa, such as Malawi, have large proportions of the population- tobacco farmers included- that are malnourished.242517

TobaccoTactics Resources

For more information on the tobacco industry and Africa, see:

Additional Resources

This piece was originally written by the TCRG for The Guardian‘s Sustainable Business website and was published on 16 October 2014.

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  1. abWHO Framework Convention on Tobacco Control, Parties to the Framework Convention on Tobacco Control,updated July 2014, accessed October 2014
  2. Euromonitor International, Data downloaded May 2014
  3. abcE Blecher and H Ross, Tobacco use in Africa: Tobacco control through Prevention, American Cancer Society, 2013, accessed October 2014
  4. abWorld Health Organisation, Tobacco industry interference with tobacco control, 2008, accessed October 2014
  5. D Mendez, O Alshanqeety and KE Warner, The potential impact of smoking control policies on future global trends, Tobacco Control, April 2012, accessed October 2014
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  7. British American Tobacco, BATCo Operating Group Five Year Plan 1992-1996, Bates no. 300019658-300019747, accessed October 2014
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  15. British American Tobacco Congo, Pour un revouveau social, BAT Congo industry bulletin
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  17. abM. County Health Department, Fact Sheet: Environmental Impact of Tobacco, March 2013, accessed October 2014
  18. abcdAction on Smoking and Health, Tobacco and the Environment, August 2009, accessed October 2014
  19. British American Tobacco Ghana, Our position on WHO/FCTC/CRES proposal on tobacco taxation in West Africa, 2014
  20. Center for Tobacco Control in Africa, University of Cape Town South Africa, The African Tobacco Control Alliance, Observatory of Tobacco in Francophone Africa and the Consortium for Economic and Social Research, Press statement: BAT interference with tax increase process in the ECOWAS, 25 September 2014
  21. ASSAF et al, Preventing a tobacco epidemic in Africa: A call for effective action to support health, social and economic development, accessed October 2014
  22. World Health Organisation, WHO report on the global tobacco epidemic, 2013: Enforcing bans on tobacco advertising, promotion, and sponsorship, 2013, accessed October 2014
  23. World Health Organisation,Study group on economically sustainable alternatives to tobacco growing (in relation to Articles 17 and 18 of the Convention, September 2008, accessed October 2014
  24. Tobacco Atlas,Tobacco industry: Growing tobacco, 2014, accessed October 2014
  25. EO Oongo,Tobacco growing in Kenya: Viable Alternative income generating activities for the farmers, accessed October 2014