Two of the world’s biggest cigarette companies–British American Tobacco (BAT) and Rothmans–have merged to create a group selling more than 900 billion cigarettes a year around the world. Faced with a decline in sales in the developed world mainly as a result of anti-smoking legislation and publicity, the new giant plans to target the expanding market in the ‘developing’ world, where there is less awareness of the threat of smoking to health and where laws against cigarette advertising is virtually unknown.
The $13 billion merger, announced in January, makes the new group the second largest private tobacco company after the American Philip Morris, which sells Marlboro--the dominant global brand. (The Chinese State-owned tobacco company is the largest tobacco producer in the world). The tie-up which brings together brands such as 555 State Express, Rothmans, Benson & Hedges, Dunhill and Peter Stuyvesant, is expected not only to put Philip Morris’s dominance in doubt but also to trigger off other mergers.
The tobacco companies, including the new group to be known as New BAT, admit that their main objective is to target emerging markets. A New Bat spokesman admitted in January that the group would target the growing markets in China, Africa, India and Southeast Asia. If New Bat succeeds in its promotional pitch, it will cause more deaths than any war, disease or famine has yet claimed. In other words, the sleek brands that will flood those regions as a result of the targeting are the biggest single killer known to history, and are, therefore, more lethal than the cruise missiles rained by Uncle Sam on Iraq, for instance, but scarcely attract a fraction of the publicity.
Health experts estimate that cigarettes will claim four million lives a year worlwide by 2000 and 10 million a year by 2030, of which seven million will be in the developing world. Anti-smoking organizations, health experts and scientists in the west - including Ash, the anti-smoking group pressure group, the British Medical Association (BMA) and Oxford University dons--have opposed the merger, arguing it will lead to more deaths in the developing world.
The BMA have accused the New BAT of seeking new smokers in the developing world because its sales are under pressure in the developed world, where law-suits, anti-smoking legislation and adverse publicity have tarnished its image. It said after the announcement of the merger: ‘This is an industry on the defensive. What is alarming is that it is overtly striving to recruit new smokers in the developing world because it is under huge pressure in western markets.’
But one of the most effective critics of the deal is professor Richard Peto of Oxford University, who is one of the main authors of the biggest study so far of the dangers of tobacco smoking, published in the British Medical Journal, in which scientists from China, America and Britain interviewed the families of one million people who died between 1986 and 1988.
According to professor Peto, ‘if this merger means more cigarette sales, it’ll mean more cigarette deaths because half of all smokers eventually get killed by their habit unless they can manage to quit.’ And arguing that BAT and Rothmans provide one-sixth of the world’s tobacco, Peto added: ‘The cigarettes sold by these two companies are already causing more than half a million deaths a year and 20 years from now they will be causing a million deaths a year worldwide.’
Despite these horrific predictions, the British foreign office and the prime minister’s office have overruled the health department’s objections to the merger, arguing that the importance of boosting exports overrides the threat to lives in the developing world posed by the merger. New guidelines being drawn up by the foreign office will order British embassies worldwide to help the tobacco companies to corner new markets.
According to British media reports, embassy staff will be told ‘they must offer the same legal advice and support to tobacco companies that they give to other British firms’--including information on local markets. Company officials will also continue to accompany ministers on trade missions abroad.
The British government move comes after the publication of statements by the foreign secretary Robin Cook that British foreign policy would be guided by ethical principles. Cook’s ethical foreign policy is apparently comfortable with the promotion of mass murder, albeit disguised as business promotion, in the interests of boosting British exports.
But the real censure must be reserved for Muslim governments whose populations are being targeted but are doing nothing to counter the murderous moves by the tobacco companies and their supportive States. Even in the rare Muslim countries, like Malaysia, where there are anti-smoking legislations, the tobacco companies are free to advertise their brands on local television, and other media, by resorting to obviously evasive tactics. In Malaysia, for instance, BAT has set up Benson & Hedges Cafes that are advertised on television.
Far from planning to confront the new merger, Muslim countries have not even started discussing the threat.
Muslimedia: Feb.1-15, 1999