Two reports have slammed British American Tobacco's aggressive expansion into Africa, with researchers describing the UK giant as a modern-day 'East India Company willing to do almost anything to get the continent's booming youth population addicted to cigarettes. As cigarette use has fallen across the West, multi-billion pound tobacco companies like Phillip Morris and British American Tobacco (BAT) have set their sights on what they see as the last frontier - the world's youngest and fastest-growing continent.
Now sub-Saharan Africa - where health protections are far thinner and officials are sometimes easier to bribe - is one of the only regions on earth where cigarette sales are increasing.
It is estimated that more than 60 million Africans consume cigarettes and that this figure will continue to rise. Experts say this is already having a devastating impact on cancer rates and smoking-related deaths on a continent where getting adequate chemotherapy or palliative care treatment is a distant dream for many.
"Africa will pay the price [for the expansion]," said Professor Lekan Ayo-Yusuf, Sefako Makgatho Health Sciences University in South Africa. "The companies who are out to make a profit like British American Tobacco - obviously, with major shareholders in Britain and the US - will take the proceeds of the profit while the deaths, funerals and the tears and…disability will remain in the African continent."
A woman walks past the British American Tobacco premises in the light industrial site of Harare, Zimbabwe CREDIT: AARON UFUMELI/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock.
Researchers at the University of Bath and STOP, a global tobacco watchdog, say they worked for six years to analyse hundreds of thousands of leaked industrial documents pointing to what they say is serious misconduct by BAT, one of the UK’s top companies.
The company made more than 230 questionable payments totalling almost half a million pounds from 2008 to 2013 in ten countries like the Democratic Republic of Congo, Kenya, Rwanda and Sudan to 'influence policy in its favour and sabotage its competitors, according to the researchers.
Evidence appears to connect the company to cash payments, cars, per diems, campaign donations and even plane tickets to dozens of African politicians, civil servants and journalists.
'The UK is turning a blind eye'
Another report by the researchers based on leaked documents and court affidavits found that BAT was engaged in "possibly illegal informant networks, state capture and the potential smuggling of its own products" in South Africa, the continent's most industrialised and wealthiest nation.
While BAT claims rogue elements within the company committed these wrongdoings, researchers allege that these actions and payments appeared systematised and supported by senior staff, including those at BAT's London headquarters.
"BAT seems to be operating in the era of Queen Victoria with a pith hat," says Andy Rowell from the University of Bath, one of the reports’ leads researchers.
"It's centred in the UK. Its got market dominance in two-thirds of Africa. Many of those countries are a monopoly, and it operates on the continent with impunity. As our South Africa report shows, it basically does anything in its power to maintain that market monopoly."
"The UK government is turning a blind eye to BAT's activities in Africa. It's a paradox that as smoking rates decline in the West, they'll increase in places like Africa,” added Mr Rowell. The news comes after a joint investigation by the Bureau of Investigative Journalism, the BBC and the University of Bath revealed that BAT allegedly proposed a bribe between $300,000 and $500,000 to Zimbabwe’s former president Robert Mugabe in 2013 to release certain people who were caught spying for the company released from prison.
In a statement released on its website, BAT rejected claims that it was involved in the illicit cigarette trade. The company refused to issue a comment to The Telegraph on the alleged questionable payments or surveillance teams.