BAT at large in Africa: new documents on smuggling



Monday 31 July 2000

Embargo: 00:01 Monday 31st July 2000

New British American Tobacco internal documents uncovered by ASH and The Guardian newspaper reveal BAT facilitating and controlling widespread cigarette smuggling operations in Africa. This builds on earlier revelations of the company’s activities in Asia and Latin America and follows the European Commission’s decision last week to take legal action against (as yet unnamed) tobacco companies to recover tax losses due to smuggling. 

The documents show that BAT acts through intermediaries, in this case SOREPEX a wholesaler and trading company, to ensure that its cigarettes are sold in the illegal markets;

“Our objective now is to preserve the “façade” that SOREPEX represents between us and the sensitive markets of Togo, Benin, Niger (Unit I) and Equatorial Africa (Unit II), but at the same time, enable the BAT field force to take over the management of this important business.”

Letter from BAT to SOREPEX, 1989. 

…that it invests in illegal markets as normal business channels and finds a way to advertise them in illegal markets

BHSF [Benson & Hedges Special Filter] has 80% share of imports which it has dominated for several years and enjoys country-wide distribution. …The Unit II [Equatorial Africa] market produced a valuable contribution and it is intended to continue investment in order to protect it from further erosion. As there are no legal imports […] no local media is used. However, a major campaign on the Africa No 1 Radio programmes transmitted from Gabon is funded from Unit II resources. (emphasis added)

BAT (UK and Export) limited, 1990. 

…that it condones concealment of contraband cigarettes;

“Niger: Discussion was held concerning direct imports to Nigeria through Mr. Adji … [who] would disguise the cigarette importations by calling the shipment something else, e.g. matches.

Meeting of BAT and SOREPEX, 1987. 

“For the first time, Bogno will buy 300 cartons: this is the capacity of his truck, taking into account the other merchandise which will ‘hide’ the cigarettes. (translated from French) SOREPEX to BAT 

…that it operates through ‘umbrella’ agreements’ – using a small legal market to justify advertising to build up illegal sales

When the issue of Unit II [Equatorial Africa] was discussed where BATUKE wish to appoint a domestic importer enabling us the provide cover for advertising and GT business, Sir Patrick [Sheehy] felt that it was perfectly acceptable for BAT Cameroon to recommend a domestic importer for BHS.

BAT internal memo, 1991 

In this case GT (General Trade) is euphemistically referring to smuggled cigarettes, which is why ‘cover’ of a legitimate legal market is needed.

These documents follow the pattern of hundreds released earlier in year and presented to the Health Select Committee inquiry into the tobacco industry. On the strength of this evidence, the Select Committee recommended that the DTI should investigate BAT [see relevant 1] BAT’s Deputy Chairman, Rt Hon Kenneth Clarke QC MP, has refused to answer any specific allegations put by ASH [3] despite issuing blanket denials. In a further development last week, the European Commission announced it was to take legal action against American tobacco companies – see ASH press release [2], and on 28th July, the Canadian Government relaunched its racketeering action against RJ Reynolds on the US courts.

Stephen Byers, Secretary of State for Trade and Industry, is currently considering whether to act on the recommendation of the Health Select Committee that he should launch a Companies Act investigation into BAT. In his speech to the WTO in Seattle last year Stephen Byers said:

“If it were true that globalisation was about the unregulated power of cynical multinational corporations coercing Governments and playing off one country against another – then I would be the first to call a halt.” [4]

ASH has called on Byers to act on these words [5]. Clive Bates, Director of ASH said:

“Every week that goes by, the evidence is piling up higher. Stephen Byers has to decide if he wants his government to have a supine and sycophantic approach to rogue businesses, however big and bad, or whether he means it when he says he wants to tackle the unregulated power of cynical multinational corporations.”

ASH believes that an international convention, the WHO Framework Convention on Tobacco Control [6] should be used to control tobacco smuggling. Negotiations start in Geneva in October this year. Emma Must, International Campaigner at ASH said:

“Cigarette smuggling is a massive global problem, undermining the efforts of many governments to control the disease and addiction that could kill 500 million people alive today. The cynical and completely unacceptable behaviour of the tobacco companies makes the World Health Organisation tobacco treaty essential and urgent. When multi-nationals act like this, we need a multi-lateral response to contain them.

Yussuf Saloojee of the National Council Against Smoking, based in South Africa said

“We are pressing African governments to launch criminal investigations into BAT and its involvement in cigarette smuggling. The days when they can march in with their colonial arrogance and treat Africa like some lawless frontier are over. Africa has enough problems without multinational corporations undermining the stability of our governments and national policies.

[1] See www.parliament.the-stationery-office.co.uk/pa/cm199900/cmselect/cmhealth/27/2717.htm#a21

[2] ASH press release on EU action on smuggling

[3] Letter to Clarke making the case against BAT

[4] Byers’ speech

[5] Letter to Byers making case for DTI investigation (pdf)

[6] Details of the FTCT

For the full Guardian Article see Pressure grows for tobacco firm inquiry

For more information, download a pdf version of British American Tobacco and Africa: Smuggling investigation