The recently-released Tobacco Industry Interference Index Report for 2021 has indicated that the South African government is not doing enough to prevent its tobacco control policies from being influenced by the industry. Troublingly, this year’s report found that South Africa dropped six points from last year and now finds itself one of the ten nations most vulnerable to industry interference in the world, spelling dire news for anti-tobacco lobbyists, healthcare groups and the more than 60 million people who call South Africa home.
The findings are further evidence of the latest stratagems in a lengthy playbook of Big Tobacco tactics, which attempt to forestall, thwart and undermine proper regulation of the sector. Perhaps most concerningly, it appears as though industry opposition has slowed and potentially even entirely derailed efforts to implement a robust track and trace system in the country. Such a mechanism is an integral part of the Protocol to Eliminate Illicit Trade in Tobacco Products, which South Africa has signed. Without a robust and independent system to track and trace tobacco, both the black market and the transnational tobacco companies which support and benefit from it are likely to flourish unimpeded.
South Africa must do more
The main takeaway from the Index Report was the inadequacy of the South African government’s efforts to fend off industry interference. A lack of transparency was one of the biggest criticisms, with meetings between officials and tobacco industry representatives taking place unannounced and behind closed doors, with no public access to their minutes or machinations. Collaboration with industry-funded NGOs is another bugbear that must be addressed, according to the report’s authors.
Meanwhile, the paper also pointed to the fact that the existing legislation prohibits corporate social responsibility contributions from tobacco companies, but allows charitable donations – thus creating loopholes which the industry seems to have exploited. Indeed, recently-leaked documents revealed that the South African Revenue Service (SARS) accepted donations from the now-defunct Tobacco Institute of South Africa (TISA)—a move which has been slammed by anti-smoking activists. Sharon Nyatsanza, from the National Council Against Smoking, called SARS’s acceptance of the gifts “a clear violation of the government’s obligations under the World Health Organization’s Framework Convention on Tobacco Control” and emphasized that “interacting with tobacco companies, especially when done behind closed doors, is a breeding ground for manipulation and should be avoided”.
According to the authors behind the recent Tobacco Industry Interference report, there is therefore an urgent need for the laws surrounding tobacco control to be reframed, with implementation of the long-awaited Control of Tobacco Products and Electronic Delivery Systems Bill a chief priority. The tobacco industry’s resistance to such legislation is nothing new; in fact, it has formed a central tenet of Big Tobacco’s business plan for decades.
Par for the Big Tobacco course
While the major players in the sector might pay lip service to the idea of tightening regulations, bolstering public health initiatives and clamping down on the black market, any impartial observer can see that nothing could be further from the truth. Indeed, the industry has opposed regulatory controls at every turn, including through extensive efforts to sabotage efforts to track and trace tobacco products.
An industry-independent system capable of tracking individual packs of cigarettes at every stage of the supply chain would strike a fearsome blow to the black market, but TISA alleged that the tender process for the system was rushed, that it placed undue demands on smaller retailers and that it would result in more contraband or counterfeit products. After cancelling the tender last year, the commissioner of SARS suggested that track and trace might or might not be a necessary part of South Africa’s fight against illicit trade, a stance which unsurprisingly drew accusations of bowing to Big Tobacco.
Recent exposés reveal extent of chicanery
Another significant cornerstone of the Index Report outlined a number of serious accusations against British American Tobacco (BAT), including corporate espionage, bribery and illegally accessing classified information. According to two recently-released exposés, BAT wielded a network of as many as 200 informants between 2012 and 2016.
Under cover of ostensibly rooting out the illicit tobacco trade, these individuals instead spied on the company’s rivals, apparently paying large-scale bribes, tapping telephones and gathering information to hassle and disrupt BAT’s competition. The questionable conduct was apparently as widespread as it was serious: as Andrew Rowell, a senior researcher at the University of Bath’s Tobacco Control Research Group, put it: “BAT’s potentially corrupt practices in Africa were not just the work of a few bad apples. The geographic spread of the activity, the infrastructure used and the number of senior staff involved suggest that BAT’s payments were routine, with the evidence trail frequently leading back to BAT’s London headquarters.”
South Africa at important crossroads
While BAT, which enjoys more than a 70% share of the South African tobacco market, has dominated the headlines, it’s clear that its fellow Big Tobacco cohorts are equally unscrupulous when it comes to prioritising their own interests above those of the South African people. Their outspoken resistance to the introduction of fit-for-purpose track and trace systems, and their support for the hopelessly insufficient production counters and on-the-spot check-ups that are currently in place, is clear evidence of how their opposition to the illicit tobacco trade is disingenuous to say the least.
The news that SARS commissioner Edward Kieswetter is currently unconvinced that a track and trace scheme is even necessary at all should be immensely concerning for those passionate about preventing the industry’s rampant interference in tobacco control policies. With the nation now at a crossroads, it’s crucial that the government takes this opportunity to tighten regulations, seal loopholes and follow global best practices on tobacco control. Failure to do so runs the risk of inviting Big Tobacco to sink its claws into the country even further, depleting national coffers and endangering public health in the process.