On July 17, 2014, the Director of Regulatory Affairs for West and Central Africa of British American Tobacco (BAT), sent to some Ministers of Health of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) a document entitled “Our position on the WHO / FCTC / CRES suggestions on tobacco taxation in West Africa”. In the document, BAT argued against an increase in tobacco taxation in the region on the ground that “high excise taxes can inhibit the development and retention of a value-added industry which generates economic growth and development”.
This tobacco industry initiative was initiated as a result of the work undertaken to raise tobacco tax in the ECOWAS and WAEMU – West African Economic and Monetary Union – by the WHO, Centre for Tobacco Control in Africa (CTCA), the Observatory of Tobacco in Francophone Africa (OTAF) and the Consortium for Social and Economic Research (CRES), an independent institution based in Dakar and specialized in social and economic research on tobacco. Two draft guidelines were developed which received the unanimous approval of all parties concerned and were being examined for adoption by the two regional organizations.
In view of countering the efforts of these TC organizations, tobacco companies, headed by BAT, conducted an aggressive disinformation, intimidation and blackmailing campaign towards the governments in the regions in order to prevent the adoption of the guidelines. BAT sent letters to governments, discrediting the work of the organizations involved in preparing the guidelines. In so doing, the tobacco industry was dissuading governments from fulfilling their obligations under the WHO FCTC which they had all ratified. Article 6 of the treaty recognizes that “price and tax measures are an effective and important mean of reducing tobacco consumption in various segments of the population, especially young people”. The campaign was not only misleading but constituted real proof of tobacco manufacturer’s intention to interfere in States public policy.
Civil society response
Regional public health organizations, committed to preventing and reducing the harms caused by tobacco released a Press Statement asking the ECOWAS and WAEMU Member States Governments not to be side-tracked by BAT’s interference, but rather, to remain committed to the draft guidelines to develop effective instruments to implement the FCTC in the region. An urgent call was made to these Governments not to be dissuaded by BAT hostile campaign of misinformation and pressure from fulfilling their commitments regarding tax measures to reduce the demand for tobacco products under the WHO FCTF. ECOWAS and its Member States were urged to strictly follow, among others, the following recommendations of the FCTC Article 5.3 Guidelines, noting that the application of these is inter-sectoral and not limited only to public health ministries:
- Interact with the tobacco industry only when and to the extent strictly necessary to enable Parties to effectively regulate the tobacco industry and tobacco products and conduct any necessary interactions with full transparency.
- Reject partnerships and non-binding or non-enforceable agreements with the tobacco industry.
- Reject any assistance with or any proposed tobacco control legislation or policy drafted by or in collaboration with the tobacco industry.
- Prohibit tobacco industry involvement in any youth, public education, or other tobacco control initiatives.
- Prevent tobacco-related conflicts of interest for government bodies, officials, and employees involving occupational activities by government officials, employees, and contractors with both government and the tobacco industry, tobacco holdings by government institutions or their officials or employees, tobacco industry political contributions, payments, or gifts to government officials or employees or contributions to government institutions or bodies, and tobacco industry representatives or any entity acting on its behalf from serving on any government committee.
- Prohibit incentives, privileges, benefits or exemptions for the tobacco industry.
- Ensure that any investment in the tobacco industry does not prevent Parties with a State-owned tobacco industry from fully implementing the FCTC.
The Press Release was endorsed by the Centre for Tobacco Control in Africa (CTCA), the University of Cape Town, South Africa (UCP), the African Tobacco Control Alliance (ATCA), the Observatory of Tobacco in Francophone Africa (OTAF), and the Consortium for Economic and Social Research (CRES).
Despite heavy pressure from British American Tobacco, in December 2017, the 15-member ECOWAS (Economic Community of West African States) and the 8-member WAEMU (West African Economic and Monetary Union, a subset of ECOWAS) passed new Tobacco Tax Directives. Both Directives increased the minimum ad valorem excise tax rate to 50%. In addition, the ECOWAS Directive introduced a minimum specific tax (US$ 0.02/stick).