Search This Blog

Monday, July 27, 2009

Big Tobacco Sets Its Sights on Africa

- Jeffrey Kluger

It's easy enough to buy a smoke at Isa Yakubu's grocery store on a busy street in Lagos, Nigeria. Never mind if you don't have much money. Most local merchants are happy to break open a pack and sell cigarettes one at a time — single sticks, as they're known — for about 10 Nigerian naira, or 7 cents. "St. Moritz is the most popular brand," says Yakubu. "But [people] also like Rothmans and Benson & Hedges."
Single sticks go fast at 7 cents each — an especially good price point for kids. And while Yakubu says he doesn't sell to children, other shopkeepers do. About 25% of teens — some as young as 13 — use tobacco in some parts of Nigeria, double the smoking rate of Nigerian men, and many pick up the habit by age 11. That's a demographic powder keg, one that means big trouble if you're a health expert and big promise if you're a tobacco executive. Both sides agree on one thing, though: across all of Africa, cigarettes are set for boom times. (See pictures of vintage pro-smoking propaganda.)
In recent years, the world has increasingly been cleaving into two zones: smoking and nonsmoking. In the U.S. and other developed countries, Big Tobacco is in retreat, chased to the curbs by a combination of lawsuits, smoking bans, rising taxes and advertising restrictions. Fewer than 20% of adult Americans now smoke — the lowest rate since reliable records have been kept — and a tobacco crackdown is under way in Europe, Canada and elsewhere. In April, Congress boosted federal cigarette taxes threefold, from 32 cents a pack to $1. In June, President Barack Obama signed a law giving the FDA the power to regulate cigarettes like any other food or drug.
But the West is not the world, and elsewhere smoking is exploding. In China, 350 million adults are hooked on tobacco, which means the country has more smokers than the U.S. has people. Smoking rates in Indonesia have quintupled since 1970. In Russia, boys as young as 10 start lighting up. This year, tobacco companies will produce more than 5 trillion cigarettes — or 830 for every person on the planet.
It's in Africa, however, that the battle for the hearts, minds and lungs of new smokers is being waged most aggressively — and Nigeria offers a telling look at how the fight is unfolding. For all the woes that beset the continent, Africa still enjoys the lowest smoking rates in the world, largely because most people just can't afford it. In Ghana, the male smoking rate (which in most places in the world is higher than the female rate) is only 8%; in the Democratic Republic of Congo, it's 14%; in Nigeria, it's 12%. Compare that with 31% in India, 56% in Malaysia and a whopping 61% in China. But the tobacco industry abhors a vacuum, and in recent years, industry players — principally London-based British American Tobacco, Switzerland- based Philip Morris International and the U.K.'s Imperial Tobacco — have been working hard to fill it. "We've done this before," says Allan Brandt, a professor of the history of science at Harvard University and the author of The Cigarette Century. "When something gets regulated here, we move the risk offshore." Says Michael Eriksen, a former policy adviser for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: "Africa is in play." (See how many people smoke around the world.)
Spreading the ScourgeBig Tobacco's footprint in Africa has been hard to miss for a while. British American markets its wares — which include Dunhill and Pall Mall — in a vast crescent sweeping from South Africa to Congo and west to Ghana, as well as throughout North Africa. In 2003 the company planted its stakes deeper, building a $150 million factory in Nigeria. Philip Morris, whose brands include Marlboro and Chesterfield, has a smaller presence on the continent. "We are a minor, minor player," says spokesman Greg Prager. But that could change. The company does no business in Nigeria, but it controls about 15% of the market across North Africa and has a scattered 10% share elsewhere. It has also built a new factory in Senegal.
That expansion increasingly happens through the single-stick model, and that's the traffic that causes the most worry. People who buy cigarettes by the stick are typically the poor, the uneducated or the young — all groups less likely to have learned of the perils of smoking. "[A single stick is] much more affordable, and for young people, it's easier to conceal," says Babatunde Irukera, an antismoking lawyer working with the Nigerian government.
See TIME's tobacco covers.
Watch TIME's video "Au Revoir Cigarettes."
What's more, though British manufacturers, like American ones, put warnings on cigarette packs, the labels do no good if a pack is something you never see. Like other antismoking activists, Irukera believes industry actively promotes single-stick sales (which also occur in Asia, the Americas and elsewhere in the world). But the companies answer that the matter is out of their hands. Says British American spokeswoman Catherine Armstrong: "If retailers choose to break [packs] up and sell them one at a time — which I believe is very widespread across Africa — that's not something we have any involvement with." Still, the sticks are getting out, and the companies are cashing in. According to Emmanuel James-Odiase, an antitobacco counselor in Nigeria, more than 200 teens in his country begin smoking every day. (Read "Why a Tobacco Giant Backs a Tough New Antismoking Bill.")
Making it harder to contain those numbers is the fact that the same multinationals that are Africa's cigarette suppliers are also its benefactors. Tobacco companies have jumped into the corporate-social- responsibility game, doing all manner of benevolent work across Africa and Asia. In 2005, Philip Morris paid $5 billion to buy Indonesian cigarette-maker Sampoerna, a company that was already pouring money into scholarships for local students. British American does similar work in Malaysia, and in Nigeria has devoted 1% of its local profits to improving access to drinking water, health care and vaccines. That kind of largesse buys the companies a measure of indebtedness.
"It's hard to tell a village, 'You shouldn't accept these new wells or bicycles because it's from industry,' " says Stella Bialous, an adviser to the World Health Organization. "[But] when it comes time to pass regulatory things the company doesn't think reasonable, they can call in their chips. They have all these little groups dependent on their money."
In some cases, those "little groups" include the government. In 2007 the Nigerian Customs Service signed an agreement with British American to work jointly on curbing the unlicensed tobacco trade — which diverts profits from industry. The company courted the government two years earlier, with a three-day retreat at a local resort. "It's not the industry's job to be in charge of government policy," says Bialous.
But Nigeria and Africa as a whole are starting to push back. In 2003 the World Health Assembly adopted the Framework Convention on Tobacco Control, a treaty designed to attack smoking through a mix of methods including bans and tax hikes. So far, 164 countries have joined the pact, including 48 in Africa. The U.S. signed the treaty in 2004 but has yet to implement it, though the President is expected to seek Senate ratification soon, adding a very big player to the team.
If such antismoking strategies are to succeed, health experts warn that speed is essential. "The challenge for Africa is to adopt policies to reduce tobacco use before the epidemic sweeps across the continent," says Matthew Myers, president of the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids. To that end, Nigeria is taking a page from the West's playbook, filing a $45 billion damages suit against British American, Philip Morris and the domestic firm International Tobacco, alleging what Irukera calls a "clear strategy to market their products to young people." The tobacco companies deny the charge.
For all the efforts of the lawyers, doctors and treaty writers, it's at the grass roots that the fight against tobacco will be won. On a hot Friday afternoon not long ago, a group of students in blue-and-yellow uniforms gathered for a lecture at the Shepherd Secondary School in Ketu, a poor neighborhood in Lagos. "Have you seen anybody smoking on TV?" asks James-Odiase, the antitobacco counselor. The class nods, and one boy admits that he admires the way male actors look when they smoke. "With each puff he takes," the counselor warns, the actor's "life reduces by five seconds." The kids of Ketu — new to such things — gasp at that.
Later in the day, Salau Moshood, 17, reflects on what he's learned. "I heard today that smoking is not good, especially for children," he says. "My advice to the people is that they should stop." That advice may or may not be heeded, but health officials everywhere will count it as a win if Moshood himself and millions of other Africans never start.