British American Tobacco: Please explain your shameful behaviour!

British American Tobacco's 2013 Rothmans cigarette poster, advertising cigarettes in a developing country
British American Tobacco’s 2013 Rothmans cigarette poster, advertising cigarettes in a developing country

During the past year, posters advertising British American Tobacco’s Rothmans cigarettes have appeared on shop fronts all over Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. Many of these posters are made of sturdy plastic and are resistant to the heavy downpours of the rainy season. Some shops have two or three posters “decorating” them, and more of them keep on appearing.

Some shop owners tell me that the posters were just “put there” overnight- some (made of paper) were pasted on to their shop fronts, they say. Following the posters appearing, shopkeepers were given “special” plastic dispensers complete with with packs of Rothmans cigarettes to sell. One shopkeeper told me that he thought the posters came from Kenya. British American Tobacco has a Kenya BAT headquarters, but it has been difficult for to connect with the Kenya BAT company for their opinion. Indeed, British American Tobacco appear to have ignored all of my attempts to contact them through their web site.

The posters would be illegal if they were posted on storefronts in the UK. I am told that they are illegal also in Ethiopia. They also contravene the World Health Organisation (WHO) Framework Convention on Tobacco Control guidelines. Wonderfully, Ethiopia recently ratified the WHO FCTC tobacco treaty, which is a huge step forward. Ethiopia also has one of the lowest prevalences of smoking in the world, and has the potential to be a world leader in the global fight against the tobacco disease epidemic. Hopefully, these posters will come down once the WHO FCTC treaty’s rules have been put into force.

Still, I have no idea how British American Tobacco managed to get these advertisements posted. I’ve tried to contact Nicandro Durante, the highly paid CEO of British American Tobacco, but there has been no response- he is a very difficult person to contact. I am communicating with a British Member of Parliament, who has contacted Mr Durante directly, and I’m awaiting his response. I’m also communicating with the tobacco control section of the UK Ministry of Health. I am very concerned that my own country- Britain- should allow its tobacco industry to apply one set of tight advertising rules in the UK and at the same time apply an entirely different set of (relaxed) rules in another country.

Rothmans is a British cigarette brand, and the pack has “Britain” written all over it, so to speak. One side of the pack says “Established in England 1890,” while on one edge of the pack, as well as on the front of the pack, are the words, “Rothmans of Pall Mall, trademark owner.” The cigarette packs are also illegal in the UK. As with the posters, they contravene WHO FCTC tobacco treaty guidelines, because they lack a health warning on the front and back. The only health warning on the Rothmans cigarette packs is in barely legible faint gold lettering on a small area of one edge of the pack.

Amharic is the official language of Ethiopia, but there is no Amharic language on these packs, or on the posters.

As a doctor who took the Hippocratic Oath, a tenet of which is to “Do No Harm,” and who cares about the health of people; as a lover of the wonderful people of Ethiopia; and as someone who is deeply concerned about targeting of precious children and youth in developing countries by tobacco company advertising and marketing, I am seriously disturbed by these posters. They clearly target poor people and undoubtedly are freely visible to teens. As a British citizen, I am ashamed, sad and sickened to see a British product that advertises disease and death proudly displaying its British origins- a product from MY country. This behaviour of a British cigarette company is an abomination, an insult to British people, and an assault on the world’s children and youth.

British American Tobacco and other tobacco companies are aggressively and shamefully targeting the world’s poor children and youth in many developing countries with their advertising and marketing. Over 80% of smokers are now in the developing world and the number is increasing. Tobacco company advertising and targeting of the world’s poor needs to be stopped in its tracks if the developing world is to curtail the impending epidemic of tobacco-related diseases that has affected hundreds of millions of people worldwide.

I say to British American Tobacco’s CEO, Nicandro Durante, who after all is at the top of BAT’s ladder, and surely should know about these posters and be able to explain them, “Tell us what is going on here, and pull the posters down!”

ADDENDUM

A month or so following this post, I received a response from an executive at British American Tobacco. The response was sent to my Member of Parliament in the UK, since for some reason BAT refused to communicate directly with me. The response from BAT was that they managed somehow to get those posters up with an agreement from “the appropriate” authorities. Whatever this means, BAT knew it was illegal in Ethiopia to advertise cigarettes and they did some deal to do what they always do- target youth, this time, poor Ethiopian youth. The letter from BAT goes on to say that they do their very best to ensure that they do not target the under-18 population. How can they put hundreds of posters all over Addis Ababa, most in terribly poor neighbourhoods, where kids abound, and say they don’t target under-18-year-olds? They knew full well that Ethiopia has a low smoking rate and that Ethiopian kids are an ideal target for their advertising. If you’re a tobacco company executive, get a teen addicted to cigarettes and they are your (addicted) customers for life!

The good news is that these posters were all pulled down, thanks particularly, I believe, to the Ethiopian Ministry of Health, but we can wonder, not if BAT has further plans to exploit the poor kids of developing countries, but what the plans are.

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1 Comment

  1. Hi.
    To let you know I was about to smoke and I took a cigarette out of the packet and the paper that is wrapped around the filter was wrapped around the whole cigarrette . I’m not impressed at all and would like a superior to contact me… I have taken pictures as proof. Could I please be contacted asap
    Thanks
    Biancs

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