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Thursday, July 30, 2009



I stand this day, before, not only you, fellow colleagues and executives, but before my conscience and the inscrutable eyes of History. I stand condemned, lampooned and almost lifeless.
I am resigning my position as Chief Executive Officer of the Western Cigarettes International Company here, knowing now that the party for me, for us and the illegal trade of the most advertised, yet one of the most dangerous substances known to man, is over. And because the weight in my heart can no longer allow me to continue to work as CEO.
I’ll tell you a story before I walk out the door this cold and uncomfortable morning.
Last night, my eight-year old son who attends the British Make-Over Worldwide School here in Lagos walked up to me, hands akimbo.
“Daddy, is it true that you are a murderer?” He asked.
I was shell shocked, but mustered the strength to ask him “Why, Brandy? Who the hell put that idea in your small head?”
“It’s Johnny, my class mate. He said his Daddy told him that you make a product that kills people, and that you have already killed millions of people world wide. Dad, do you kill people for a living?”
Before I could collect myself, my son proceeded to give me a lecture in morality, and queried why I sell packaged death. But unlike his mother (from whom I am now divorced, any way), I couldn’t shout him down and argue my way through. I was caught in a trough of condemnation.
With unsteady hands I walked into my study, slumped into a chair, and the result of the soul searching that followed is the paper I hold in my hand today.
(Oh, yes, I divorced his mother for pissing me off all the time, yelling at me to get out of the controversial business of marketing disease and death through addiction. And she never failed to remind me daily that I neither smoke nor allow our son to, yet work day and night to addict other people’s children. Two years ago, I filed for divorce).
You may I am throwing in the towel particularly because of the nightmarish turn of events in Nigeria , our biggest market in Sub-Saharan Africa. In your minds, you may have already condemned me, thinking it’s because of the recent hearing at the National Assembly on the National Tobacco Control Bill, a huge bad news for our business if allowed to be passed because it will mean stricter legislation, no doubt, what with high taxes, gory pictures of cancerous bodies on tobacco packs, ban on smoking in ALL public places, and the stuff that just anybody could sue us for damage.
You might even have assumed that it’s because of the outcome of our last meeting when, in despair, we analyzed the impact of the recent Family Smoking Prevention and Tobacco Control Act passed by the US Congress which will empower the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to regulate tobacco like hard drugs! No doubt, it is historical and will bring a sweeping change not only to tobacco use in the USA , but send ripple effects world wide. It perhaps fulfills, in installment, the prophecy of one of our repentant former executive that tobacco will be outlawed one day. But that is not exactly why I am leaving.
I haven’t related this fully before, but the fact is that I have killed people, old and young, in installments, for three decades. I started out in North Carolina , the biggest tobacco farming state in the USA as a salesman. So immense was my marketing skill that in five years, I had enlisted 10 of my friends and 12 family members into the smoking club (by the way, five are already dead of lung cancer), emerged as the district’s ‘Best Marketer of the Year’ thrice and had been employed as a senior marketing personnel in St. Moses Incorporated. That was about 30 years ago, a decade after the US Surgeon-General, for the first time, declared that smoking was dangerous to health. In the 20 years that I worked in the USA , we battled all kinds of opposition in the face of emerging knowledge. But we found ways round the missiles including the 1971 ban on tobacco advertising on television and radio and the 1988 rules against smoking on airline flights. And of course, the 1998 $206 Billion “Master Settlement” agreement that seven tobacco companies reached with 46 states in 1998 to resolve lawsuits and change their marketing practices. The media hawks were also on our necks, revealing secret industry documents which outlined how we planned to addict youngsters, the use of the different flavours to attract target groups, the cliché about 60 carcinogens and 4,000 toxins in cigarette smokes bla bla bla. Life itself is a battlefront, isn’t it?
But we soldiered. Soon we discovered the developing nations with their low level of health education, weak legislations and ‘flexible’ government officials would provide economic shoulders to weep on.
And, in no time I was easily spotted as one with the business acumen to explore the vast and fertile Chinese market. By the time I left China , five years later, the Asian giant had become one of our greatest success stories, with billions of dollars rolling in yearly. But in retrospect now, I remember that we had also contributed significantly in preparing China to grow into the epicenter of a tobacco epidemic. As at the last count, if you remember, the WHO says China has the highest rate of tobacco-related mortality globally with one million people dying every year from cancers of the lungs, bladder, heart disease, stroke, emphysema, gangrene and countless other tobacco-induced ailments. Not to talk of the thousands of others sickened and killed via second hand tobacco smoke.
In any case, I went on to consolidate our company’s success in India . Our experiment with ‘refined bidi’ and also other forms of smokeless tobacco became the model for the horde of international companies converging and feeding fat on other Third World economies. But I had to leave four years later despite the breakthroughs there. It was also too obvious that India was about exploding: one billion sticks of cigarettes up in smoke every day; highest incidence of oral cancer in the world; One third of all cancer patients in the world based in India ; 1 out of 10 Indian adults dying of tobacco related diseases. These WHO-backed statistics were more than we could chew and the activists’ bickering became more than we could swallow, so I picked my suitcase and left.
It was then I got called on the Nigerian mission. And the rest, you know, is recent history.
I have understandably been so mad by the activities of the irritants here called the anti-tobacco activists, to erode the monumental success we‘ve recorded in less than a decade of our re-entry into Nigeria . As you know, Mr. Sanjo, the ex-while ruler spoilt us silly. Of course in 2000, he left behind state matters to come to our head office in order to sign our MOU bringing us to his country as ‘foreign investors’. I remember that night, the other executives and I had a loud Champaign party in London and wondered if Africans would ever learn. We couldn’t help but marveled how a country would give us such a presidential welcome when we were being driven from ours! Who were his advisers? Anyway, that was his business. After all, ours was cigarette making and marketing.
And, you still remember all our marketing gimmicks, how we targeted youths through musical and sporting events, women through fashion shows, and bombarded everyone through aggressive advertising. We also hyped our corporate image through a contrived CSR. Whenever our activities are questioned, we put up the usual defense about smoking being a matter of choice. But, c’mon, it’s no secret that when someone comes into contact with a nicotine-laced cigarette, he no longer has a choice other than to drag and drag and drag until he/she is dragged into the grave! I am still amazed the world bought that dummy from us in the first place.
Well, I must say in the last seven years I have enjoyed the famous Nigerian hospitality. In the office here, I have enjoyed your cooperation, your camaraderie and team spirits. But today, I leave this question for you; ‘Are you prepared to ask the stigma-tainted question that I couldn’t face last night?’ For sooner or later, they will ask you. You may want to ruminate on that, and walk out the way that I soon will. Or sit still, in shame.
I cannot be a part of my son’s future, for that future is full of questions, stigma and naked shame. But please tell him, by the time I am gone, that I died a broken and remorseful man. Tell him that I really was a murderer, but then I died a repented murderer. Perhaps he can right the wrongs by salvaging his generation, by telling them about the death that lurks in tobacco use, the same death I marketed for three decades. No, I am not fit to live.

Abah is a Project Officer and Gender Focal Person with Environmental Rights Action (ERA). Presenter of Tobacco & You