Big Tobacco’s Big Profits #ActOnTobacco

Today marks the start of a campaign by ASH and our partners, highlighting how Big Tobacco’s big profits continue to be built on a lethal trade and shady dealings.

Over the coming week the two biggest transnational tobacco companies in the world, British American Tobacco (BAT) and Philip Morris International (PMI) are holding their Annual General Meetings: PMI in New York, BAT in London.

ASH holds shares in BAT so we can go along to their AGM every year. Why? Because although we’re forced to listen to the Chairman boast about BAT’s performance, it gives us the opportunity to challenge the company’s behaviour, and to demand answers to difficult questions.

Every BAT Group company, and all staff worldwide, commit to “high standards of corporate behaviour”, such that they act with “honesty, integrity and transparency”. But this is not a commitment BAT has lived up to.

Since their 2018 AGM, BAT has been revealed to still be facilitating tobacco smuggling while attempting to control a global system designed to prevent it. BAT is also currently under investigation by the Serious Fraud Office for corrupt practices.

BAT’s code of practice says its core principles are “responsible” marketing which is “directed at adult consumers” yet they’ve been exposed promoting and advertising their products to children around the world, next to schools and through social media. Paying ‘social media influencers’ (young people with large online followings) to post images of cigarettes and smoking is a marketing strategy widely used by Big Tobacco. BAT is a serial offender, behind high profile ‘influencer’ marketing campaigns for Lucky Strike and Dunhill which have spread to every continent.

An influencer paid to promote BAT brands explained, “I put the pack of cigarettes here on the table and I take a photo. Because it’s obviously illegal. So they have this group of people in every city… They try to create this thing where they give packets of cigarettes to people with a certain number of followers, so that they post a picture with the packet. The final image they want to give is that smoking Lucky Strike is cool.”

BAT will be reporting global operating profits of £9.3 billion generated last year at its AGM tomorrow.  It is one of the world’s largest companies, selling its products in over 200 markets and controlling an estimated 11.8% of the global cigarette market.

Its retiring Chief Executive, Nicandro Durante, has received a “golden parachute” worth about £7.5 million, on top of the more than £50 million he made while CEO.  In the UK alone, the four major tobacco manufacturers make over £1.5 billion in profits every year, and their profit margins here and around the world are much higher than those of companies making much less damaging consumer goods.

In Britain, only 6% of the public trust the tobacco industry to tell the truth, and why should they? Big Tobacco has been exposed again and again as defrauding the public, using tactics of denial, deceit and delay to continue peddling its lethal products.

And BAT’s still at it, spending millions on corporate makeovers, saying they’re ‘Transforming Tobacco’ while behind the scenes it’s business as usual. That’s why I will be there at their AGM tomorrow: to call BAT to account for the lives they’ve blighted.

Deborah Arnott, chief executive, ASH.