Mon, Jul 17, 2017 - Page 7 News List

African nations are at a disadvantage in the fight
against ‘big tobacco’

The tobacco industry appears ‘willing to fight on all fronts’ in Africa, but the continent’s governments do not have sufficient resources to fight them

By Sarah Boseley  /  The Guardian

Illustration: Yusha

African nations, whose attempts to regulate cigarettes are increasingly bogged down in the courts by wealthy tobacco companies, should impose high taxes to deter people from developing a smoking habit, the WHO said.

Many African governments are at a disadvantage in the fight against the industry over regulatory controls that are the norm in the West, like graphic health warnings on packs, WHO Tobacco Free Initiative Programme Manager Vinayak Prasad said.

They have neither the funds nor enough expertise to deal with the big tobacco companies’ threats, intimidatory letters and law suits, he said.

His comments follow the exposure by the Guardian of the attempts by multinational tobacco companies to delay and dilute regulatory controls in Africa through litigation and threats. At least eight African governments have been pressured by the industry.

“Just focus on getting the tax raised,” Prasad said.

The WHO, the World Bank and others are encouraging and assisting countries in changing their tobacco taxation, which nations from the Philippines to India have demonstrated could raise millions of US dollars for healthcare or other essential government spending, he said.

Developing nations do not have enough money or staff devoted to public health and often those in government who lead on tobacco control are also the key players for other areas, such as mental health, Prasad said.

“The tobacco epidemic has already reached the African continent. Nations have started to prioritize it, but inherently the systems are weak. They need to build human resource capacity and technical capacity to respond to industry threats,” he told reporters. “We are working extremely hard [to help them], but we need to do more.”

Reacting to the Guardian’s reports, former British minister for public health Caroline Flint said: “It is sad to see firms like BAT [British American Tobacco] fighting African governments for years over health warnings on cigarette packages and modest taxes. In any western nation, they would have conceded these issues years ago. It speaks volumes about their approach to Africa that the tobacco giants appear willing to fight on all fronts to protect their sales.”

A tax on the profits of firms “could provide funds for legal support to governments in poorer countries seeking to resist tobacco damaging the health of their local populations,” British All-Party Parliamentary Group on Smoking and Health Vice Chair Lord Rennard said.

The tobacco industry also vigorously opposes hikes in cigarette taxation, which is proven to reduce the numbers who smoke. The companies and tax advisers who intervene on their behalf with governments claim that tax hikes lead to smuggling from nations where the prices are lower.

That is not so if taxation is simplified so that the same sum is levied on every carton regardless of brand, Prasad said.

Deborah Arnott, chief executive of campaigning group Ash, said the revelations showed that the industry had not turned over a new leaf, focusing on e-cigarettes and aiming for a smoke-free future, as it claims.

“The Guardian has thrown a spotlight on the dirty truth, the leopard hasn’t changed its spots, it’s still promoting the same old lethal products the same way it always did, in countries where it can get away with it,” she said.

“Last century, 100 million people died from smoking; if Big Tobacco isn’t stopped, then this century a billion will be killed by their lethal products and most of them will be from low and middle-income countries,” Arnott said.

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