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Anti-tobacco critics should go slow

The World No Tobacco day which was marked on Friday (May 31) saw many groups joining forces under a campaign banner to reduce the level of tobacco product consumption in the world.

We have always supported open and honest debates that include all sides regarding the important topic of public health and it is right and proper that the tobacco industry’s critics have opportunities to voice their views regarding tobacco control. However, while some of the industry’s critics are concerned with improving public health, a vocal minority seem more concerned with simply driving the tobacco industry out of business, assuming this will see an end to smoking around the world overnight.

British American Tobacco (BAT) believes these critics should be careful what they wish for. This week, we pose the question, “What would a world with no legal tobacco industry really look like?”

The reality is that adults that have made the conscious decision to smoke will continue to do so. But instead of buying their legal taxed cigarettes, made by legitimate tobacco companies and sold by reputable retailers, they will turn to black market sources to get what they want.

After all, prohibition didn’t stop people from drinking alcohol in America in the 1920s and we do not see why it would be any different for today’s adults who choose to smoke. The tobacco industry is highly regulated and so it should be given the products we sell. But the fact of the matter is that tobacco is a legal product and we are a legitimate company which conducts our business in a professional and responsible way, abiding by the laws in all the countries we operate in, often going above and beyond our legal requirements.

In 2012, BAT Uganda contributed Shs 72bn in taxes to the government and brought in over $42m in export earnings from our tobacco leaf export. During the year, the company in Uganda contracted 20,000 farmers, supporting them with free extension advice delivered through over 100 field technicians, interest-free loans of over Shs 14bn, and provided free seed for food crops after the tobacco harvest.

Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for the network of criminals ready and waiting to step in and take over if the legitimate tobacco industry did not exist. Many of these illegal networks are very well organised and sophisticated transnational organisations able to evade laws in each country and make significant profits. But, the way they conduct their ‘business’ is anything but legitimate.

According to the Framework Convention Alliance 2008, the combined global black market for illegal tobacco accounted for 660bn cigarette sales in 2012, making it roughly equivalent in size to the world’s third largest multinational tobacco “company” by volume.

In Uganda, the illegal tobacco market is estimated at between 15 per cent to 20 per cent of the market. Far from being a victimless crime, illegal tobacco is sold by well-organised criminal gangs, often with recognised links to terrorism. These people do not abide by the law or follow government regulations, they don’t pay taxes, they don’t care what is in their products, and the age of their customers is irrelevant.

We encourage those critics who simply want to see an end to the tobacco industry to open their eyes and see that the real tobacco problem is not the regulated and enforced legal industry, but, rather, the unregulated and growing illegal black market. Cognisant of the fact that tobacco smoking poses health risks to our customers, we have always supported regulation for the industry that is sensible, balanced and enforceable for the benefit of all stakeholders.

Times have changed and the approach to tobacco control must change too. If not, the tobacco trade risks being handed on a silver platter to the underground and criminal market – a free-for-all market that is unregulated, unenforced and untaxed.

The author is the managing director of BAT Uganda.

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