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The world's top suppliers of disposable gloves are thriving because of the pandemic. Their workers aren't

By Moses Kamuiru.

Blocking attempts to bring in regulations

British American Tobacco (BAT) and other multinational tobacco firms have threatened governments in at least eight countries in Africa demanding they ax or dilute the kind of protections that have saved millions of lives in the West, a Guardian investigation has found. BAT, one of the world’s leading cigarette manufacturers, is fighting through the courts to try to block the Kenyan and Ugandan governments’ attempts to bring in regulations to limit the harm caused by smoking. The giant tobacco firms hope to boost their markets in Africa, which has a fast-growing young and increasingly prosperous population. BAT in Uganda asserts in another document that the government’s Tobacco Control Act is “inconsistent with and in contravention of the Constitution.”

Intimidatory tactics

There are letters, including three by BAT, sent to the governments of Uganda, Namibia, Togo, Gabon, Democratic Republic of Congo, Ethiopia and Burkina Faso revealing the intimidation tactics that tobacco companies are using, accusing governments of breaching their laws and international trade agreements and warning of damage to the economy. BAT denies it is opposed to all tobacco regulation but says it reserves the right to ask the courts to intervene where it believes regulations may not comply with the law. Later this month, BAT is expected to become the world’s biggest listed tobacco firm as it completes its acquisition of the large US tobacco company Reynolds in a $49bn deal, and there are fears over the extent to which big tobacco can financially outmuscle health ministries in poorer nations.

Urgent new battlegrounds

A vote on the deal by shareholders of both firms is due to take place next Wednesday, simultaneously in London at BAT and North Carolina at Reynolds. Experts say Africa and southern Asia are urgent new battlegrounds in the global fight against smoking because of demographics and rising prosperity. Despite declining tobacco use and more controls in some richer countries, it still kills more than 7 million people globally every year, according to the WHO, and there are fears the tactics of big tobacco will effectively succeed in “exporting the death and harm” to poorer nations.  There are an estimated 77 million smokers in Africa, and those numbers are predicted to rise by nearly 40% from 2010 levels by 2030, which is the largest projected such increase in the world.

Delaying regulations

In Kenya, BAT has succeeded in delaying regulations to restrict the promotion and sale of cigarettes for 15 years, fighting through every level of the legal system. In February it launched a case in the Supreme Court that has already halted the imposition of tobacco controls until probably after the country’s general election in August, which is being contested by parliamentarians who have been linked to payments by the multinational company. In Uganda, BAT launched legal action against the government in November, arguing that the Tobacco Control Act, which became law in 2015, contravenes the Constitution. It is fighting restrictions that are now commonplace in richer countries, including the expansion of health warnings on packets and point-of-sale displays, arguing that they unfairly restrict its trade.

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