British American Tobacco’s shameful behavior

My experience with British American Tobacco’s shameful behavior in Ethiopia


In 2013, just a few months after I had arrived in Ethopia to work as a volunteer in Addis Ababa University Medical School, I noticed posters advertising British American Tobacco’s Rothmans cigarettes appearing on shop fronts in my neighbourhood in Addis Ababa. I couldn’t miss them- they shocked me because not only am I British, but also I knew that advertising cigarettes was illegal in Ethiopia. For years, when I practiced medicine in the USA, I had felt strongly about tobacco and its associated devastating health problems, and my patients will tell you that I was passionate in advising and encouraging them to quit smoking, or not to start smoking.

Soon those Rothmans cigarette posters appeared all over Addis Ababa, decorating store fronts and standing out, with their royal blue colour, above other advertisements . Most of these posters were made of sturdy plastic and were resistant to the heavy downpours of the rainy season. Some shops displayed two or three posters.tobaco2

Many of the posters appeared on busy streets, easily visible to pedestrians as well as to passing traffic, and were predominant particularly in poor areas of Addis, where many kids would see them clearly.
Some shop owners told me that the posters were just “put there” overnight. Some were made of paper and were pasted onto their shop fronts without them knowing, they said. But most were made of strong plastic, designed to survive for years and advertise British American Tobacco’s addictive and health-destroying products. Following the appearance of the posters, shopkeepers were given “special” plastic dispensers elegantly inscribed with the Rothmans logo, complete with packs of Rothmans cigarettes ready to sell.

One storekeeper thought the Rothmans posters and cigarettes were illicit forgeries, whereas another believed they were tax-free cigarettes “smuggled” in from Kenya. I later learned that neither of these suppositions was correct, but that British American Tobacco (BAT) was aware and fully involved in getting those posters on poor storefronts in Addis, even though BAT knew that advertising cigarettes was against Ethiopian law.

Indeed, British American Tobacco ignored all of my attempts to contact them through their web site about these posters.

The posters would be illegal if they were posted on storefronts in the UK. They would break UK laws on tobacco advertising. As I said, they also were illegal in Ethiopia. As stated in Ethiopia’s legal code, the Negarit Gazeta, advertising of cigarettes or any form of tobacco is against Ethiopian law.

The posters also contravened the World Health Organisation Framework Convention on Tobacco Control regulations (WHO FCTC). I contacted WHO regarding this issue, but Ethiopia had not at that time ratified the WHO FCTC tobacco treaty, so BAT had not, they said, broken WHO FCTC rules. The rules, I was told, cannot be broken if a company from a country that has ratified the treaty (UK in this case) “breaks” the rules in a country that has not ratified the treaty.tobaco

By the way, it made me think also about US tobacco companies. because the USA has not yet ratified the WHO FCTC treaty, it means that US tobacco companies, such as Philip Morris, cannot break WHO FCTC laws when they advertise and market their tobacco products in any country!

Wonderfully, Ethiopia recently ratified the WHO FCTC tobacco treaty, not long after the Rothmans posters appeared, which was an important step forward in Ethiopia’s battle against tobacco-related diseases. Ethiopia also has one of the lowest prevalences of smoking in the world, and has the potential to be a world leader in the global fight against the tobacco disease epidemic. But Ethiopia also has the potential to be devastated by the public health nightmare of tobacco-related diseases. Ethiopia is conquering its problems with malnutrition, childbirth-related issues and infectious diseases such as HIV, TB, childhood infectious diarrheas and malaria. Ethiopia does not need to replace these with tobacco-related diseases.

I had no idea how British American Tobacco managed to get those Rothmans cigarette advertisements posted. I tried to contact Nicandro Durante, the CEO of British American Tobacco, asking for an explanation as to why his company could stoop so low and try to get poor Ethiopian youth to smoke, but there was no response- he was a very difficult person to contact.

Therefore I contacted the British Member of Parliament who represents my constituency (district) in the UK. He contacted BAT directly about those Rothmans posters. I was very concerned, I told him, that my own country- Britain- should allow its tobacco industry to apply one set of tight advertising rules in the UK and at the same time apply an entirely different set of rules in another country, especially a developing country.

Some weeks later, my representative Member of Parliament in the UK received a response from an executive at British American Tobacco. For some reason, BAT refused to communicate directly with me. The response from BAT was that they managed to get those posters up on Addis storefronts with an agreement from “the appropriate” authorities in Ethiopia. BAT obviously did some “deal” to do what they always do- target youth, this time poor Ethiopian youth.

The letter from BAT goes on to say that they do their very best to ensure that they do not target the under-18 population. How can they put hundreds of posters all over Addis Ababa, most of them in desperately poor neighbourhoods, where kids abound, and say they don’t target under-18-year-olds?

BAT knew full well that Ethiopia has a low smoking rate and that Ethiopian kids are an ideal target for their advertising. If you’re a tobacco company executive, the unspoken philosophy is, and has been so for a century: Get teens to smoke and they are your addicted customers for life. And if high-income countries create legislation that hinders your profits, then go for the world’s impoverished kids instead!

The Rothmans posters in Addis were subsequently taken down.

The packs of Rothmans cigarettes sold at the time the posters were around were also very poorly labeled insofar as health warnings were concerned. BAT was also promoting Rothmans as a true “British” cigarette, an insult to any decent British citizen who cares about health and about exploitation of kids in poor countries. One side of the pack said “Established in England 1890,” while on one edge of the pack, as well as on the front of the pack, were the words, “Rothmans of Pall Mall, trademark owner.” Those cigarette packs would also be illegal in the UK. As with the posters, they contravene WHO FCTC tobacco treaty guidelines, because they lacked a health warning on the front and back. The only health warning on the Rothmans cigarette packs was in barely legible faint gold lettering on a small area of one edge of the pack. Amharic is the official language of Ethiopia, but there was no Amharic health warning on these packs, or on the posters.
As a doctor who took the Hippocratic Oath, a tenet of which is to “Do No Harm,” and who cares about the health of people; as a lover of the wonderful people of Ethiopia; and as someone who is deeply concerned about targeting of precious children and youth in developing countries by tobacco companies, I am seriously disturbed by these posters. In 2014, when BAT was claiming that it was a “responsible” company, it was, at the same time, hypocritically, irresponsibly and illegally advertising cigarettes in a developing country that needs anything but more smokers!

As a British citizen, I am ashamed, sad and sickened to see a British product that advertises addiction, disease and death, proudly displaying its British origins- a product from MY country. This behaviour of a British cigarette company, BAT, is an abomination, an insult to decent British people, and an assault on the world’s children and youth.
British American Tobacco and other tobacco companies, both transnational and local ones, are aggressively and shamefully targeting the world’s poor children and youth in many developing countries with their advertising and marketing. Over 80% of smokers are now in the developing world and the number is increasing. Tobacco company advertising and targeting of the world’s poor needs to be stopped in its tracks if the developing world is to curtail the impending and progressively worsening epidemic of tobacco-related diseases that has affected hundreds of millions of people worldwide.

I say to British American Tobacco’s CEO, Nicandro Durante, who after all is at the top of BAT’s ladder: “Shame on you and your company!”