No-Smoking Signs Spread Slowly Across Africa
KAMPALA, Uganda, Jan. 30 â€” President Yoweri Museveni said recently that his prayers would be answered if a thousand major cigarette companies operated in Uganda instead of just one.
That one, British American Tobacco, provides about one-sixteenth of Uganda's total tax revenue and provides work, either directly or indirectly, for more than half a million people in a country in need of every job it can get. The company's philanthropy benefits AIDS orphans and war victims.
But Phillip Karugaba, a Ugandan lawyer and leading antismoking activist, has a different view of the company, an integral part of the economy of East Africa since the days of British colonialism. "If we had 1,000 B.A.T.'s we wouldn't have any population left," said Mr. Karugaba, who is trying to help Africa catch up with the antismoking movements raging elsewhere. "B.A.T. is so powerful and has so much money that it is not considered an evil monster here. Not yet."
British American Tobacco, which is based in London and has subsidiaries throughout Africa and the world, earned $1.5 billion on revenue of more than $18 billion in its last fiscal year, and boasted recently that its Africa divisions had never lost a lawsuit filed by the antismoking lobby. (Brown & Williamson of the United States, which the company owns, has been the division most besieged by lawsuits.) Lately, however, African judges and lawmakers have left the company on the defensive here, an area that has long been a smoker's paradise.
Smoking is still allowed on many domestic airlines in Africa. Smoke clouds the air in most restaurants and bars and buildings. Some hospitals here even allow patients to puff on a cigarette as they mend.
Generally, the more destitute a country the less likely that smoking is controlled. South Africa, with sub-Saharan Africa's strongest economy, leads the way when it comes to tobacco regulation. Uganda, which still relies heavily on foreign economic assistance, is far behind.
"Relative lack of tobacco legislation in many African countries continues to make African countries a target of multinational tobacco companies," a group of African health ministers said last fall in preparation for talks next month at the World Health Organization on strict global tobacco regulations.
British American Tobacco, the world's second-largest tobacco company after Philip Morris, and the numerous other tobacco companies that operate around the continent have fought to keep Africa a smoking zone. Slowly, however, no-smoking signs are gaining in popularity.
Uganda, Kenya and Tanzania are enacting laws to restrict smoking in public places. In Uganda, a High Court judge, at Mr. Karugaba's urging, recently ordered the country's National Environmental Management Authority to enforce such restrictions within a year. British American Tobacco executives asked if the company could take part in the first planning meeting, but the government said no.
Antismoking advocates here say their goal is to regulate tobacco, not outlaw it. They are receiving backing from an array of groups in the United States like the San Francisco Tobacco Free Coalition that have been taking on the tobacco industry for years.
In Uganda, the activists are currently sparring with British American Tobacco over the warning labels on cigarette packs. Mr. Karugaba is seeking a court order that would strengthen the severity of the warnings, which now read, in capital letters: "Ministry of Health warning: Cigarette smoking can be harmful to your health."
When that warning label was under consideration by the Ugandan government in the late 1980's, British American Tobacco told policy makers that it did not believe cigarette smoking was harmful. "We think it would only be fair to have a form of words which is not excessively strong," the company wrote in 1988 to the Ugandan government, which was just the sixth African country at the time, along with Libya, Kenya, Senegal, Sudan and Mauritius, to put labels on cigarettes.
Since then, the company has acknowledged the health effects of smoking, albeit in a carefully worded way. Mr. Karugaba wants explicit warnings on packs that identify the diseases that can afflict smokers. He holds up as a guide the warnings in Canada, which show gruesome photographs of suffering smokers.
In another telling sign that the antismoking movement in Africa has advanced, lawsuits filed by individual smokers are no longer anomalies. While British American Tobacco successfully challenged separate lawsuits filed by two smokers in Uganda in 2000, a Nairobi lawyer recently filed a suit that is still in its early stages against the company's Kenyan subsidiary, accusing it of selling products that caused his client, an elderly farmer who suffers from vascular disease, to lose a leg.
Henry Rugamba, a spokesman for British American Tobacco's Uganda subsidiary, acknowledged that the company had been forced to deal with "a couple of lawyers who have made tobacco their issue." Nonetheless, he said, "I don't feel under siege. I think it is healthy â€” if I can use the word â€” to raise the issues."
Worried about its image, the company has begun a public relations campaign. It recently hired Wafula Oguttu, an antismoking activist who is the editor of the Monitor, Uganda's independent newspaper, to lead community discussions on smoking. In addition, British American Tobacco has voluntarily withdrawn much of its advertising, although it still blankets Kampala's bars and nightclubs with promotions for its Sportsman and Benson & Hedges brands.
Most of all, though, the tobacco industry is relying on its many friends in government. Uganda's finance minister, Gerald Ssendaula, is a tobacco trader himself. He recently interceded in a tax dispute on behalf of a small rival to British American Tobacco that makes products distributed by his family.
Meanwhile, the minister of tourism, trade and industry, Moses Ali, has invited Ugandans to smoke as a form of patriotism. "Nobody is forced to smoke but if you do then we welcome you because we shall get taxes from you," he told reporters recently.
The biggest cheerleader of all for British American Tobacco, however, has been Mr. Museveni, who has described the company as a lifesaver for a country so destitute. One of Mr. Museveni's media advisers, John Nagenda, is on the company's board of directors.
The president plays down the dangers of cancer among Africans, who Mr. Museveni says smoke but do not inhale. "We puff it out," he said last year. "That is how my father has smoked for the last 70 years and stayed alive. We look at the Europeans swallowing the smoke, then hear they have a lot of cancer in Europe. I'm not surprised. Why do they swallow the smoke?"
Even with such high-level endorsements, however, British American Tobacco has found its Uganda cigarette sales â€” about a billion sticks a year â€” on the decline, and not just because of the antismoking movement. Smugglers have been bringing in lower-cost cigarettes from Kenya that are made by the company's rivals, like Supermatch produced by Mastermind Tobacco Limited. Also, other expenses have made cigarettes, which cost less than $1 a pack here, more of a luxury. The spread of cellphones in Africa, for instance, has left many people with less disposable income for cigarettes.
As for the health effects of smoking, officials with British American Tobacco scoff at the notion that tobacco is anywhere near as serious as the many other challenges facing Africa.
"If you go down to the Ministry of Health, they have serious issues with AIDS, malaria and child malnutrition," Mr. Rugamba said. "You only have a million smokers in Uganda. It's hard to talk tobacco when people are dying of AIDS."
The company's target market, young males, seem to have a mixed view â€” which may be a sign the antismoking movement is having an effect. "I know it's harmful but it's not as big a health hazard as people make it to be," said Jefferson Mwaura, a 20-year-old Kenyan smoker. "It makes you look cool and sophisticated."
Mr. Mwaura's twin brother, Geoffrey, thinks differently. "It's like knowingly killing yourself," he said.