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The Three Musts for government – hold BAT accountable, keep it away and keep it out

Already two years ago, STOP, a tobacco industry watchdog, released reports on British American Tobacco (BAT), providing in-depth analyses of BAT’s business practices in South Africa and across the continent. Serious allegations including, illegal surveillance, use of police CCTV, capture of state agencies, bribery and illegal access to classified information are raised in these reports. These explosive allegations warranted a response from government, but none has been given.

1. The gravity of the allegations ‘Must’ be probed by the law enforcement and its specialised agency, HAWKS. The report details how BAT accessed and used police CCTV’s, deployed drones, vehicle trackers for its own surveillance and destabilisation of competitors. Email trails and whistle-blowers expose bribery of law enforcement officials, journalists and politicians, and how BAT worked with the ‘underworld mafia’. The report shows that these activities were not isolated, but were part of BAT’s corporate strategy, with links to its London BAT’s headquarters. These organised, economic crimes threaten stability but also border on issues of national security and capture. Email trails, leaked company documents, and even whistle-blowers are available and willing to attest to these alleged crimes to assist in investigations and potential prosecutions. Failure to hold corporations to account, trivialises far-reaching acts of crime and allows blue chip corporations like BAT to operate above the law.

2. The reports confirm that BAT and all tobacco companies ‘Must’ be kept away and out of state agencies, departments, and processes. BAT used its role under the Illicit Trade Task Force and its closeness to the system to violate the law, according to this report. It accessed classified information, influenced state agencies and law enforcement to carry out espionage under the guise of being a legitimate partner to governments effort to tackle illicit trade.

As the country takes steps to address the illicit trade problem, the first rule is to not involve the tobacco industry. BAT will deny involvement in illicit trade, but it is, as all tobacco companies either involved or complicit in illicit trade. The fact of the matter is BAT’s hands are not clean, BAT’s products produced in South Africa have ended up in the West African black market. So involving BAT as part of the solution to illicit trade is futile, there is an obvious conflict of interest.

3. Lasty, a code of conduct ‘Must’ be developed urgently, to guide all government departments, it is not enough to have a department of Health that strives to keep out the tobacco companies and tries to implement tobacco control policy when other state departments or authorities’ partner with tobacco companies. A fragmented approach is self-defeating. High interaction with tobacco companies and lack of transparency is breeding ground for tobacco industry influence.

We know that the greatest obstacle to the implementation of strong tobacco policy is the tobacco industry, and that the industry will go to great length, with no regard for human or social costs, to weaken, delay of destroy policy. It has an incentive to do so, strong tobacco control policy, leads to less smokers and a shrinking market or profits for tobacco companies. Tobacco companies have a keen interest in influencing decision makers, institutions, and officials to stop implementation of strong tobacco control policies. That is why interactions with the tobacco industry must be strictly limited, where there is interaction, this must be transparent. A code of conduct will ensure transparency in the operations of government with the industry, prevent tobacco-related conflict, and eventually stop tobacco industry interference.

Failure to act gives BAT impunity, and a pre-eminence above the law. The stakes are high, over 25 000 South African’s die yearly from tobacco-related illnesses and the country’s economy is left to foot a bill of over R40 billion each year from the health costs, premature deaths, and lost productivity. We have the Tobacco Products and Electronic Delivery Systems Control Bill, that has been in the corridors for over 5 years, a Bill that has clear benefits the country – but companies like BAT continue to fight such laws to protect their interest. The people are losing whilst corporations make billions of profits - as shown in the STOP reports they are willing to violate local laws and undermine governance to maintain the status quo.

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