Four Nigerian states are suing British American Tobacco and Philip Morris to recover costs of treating smoking-related diseases. The plaintiffs charge that the companies aimed to recruit more smokers by targeting minors, using sponsorship of concerts and sporting events and free cigarette giveaways. Tosin Sulaiman in The Times (UK) reports:

The biggest increase in smoking in Nigeria has been among young people. The number of young women smokers grew tenfold between 1990 and 2001, according to the World Health Organisation.
 
A large part of the plaintiffs’ evidence will come from the tobacco companies’ internal documents, which were released as part of a multibillion-dollar settlement that the US tobacco industry reached with state governments in the 1990s. The documents, some of which have been seen by The Times, show the companies’ attempts to reach younger smokers by sponsoring well-known musicians, and their efforts to fight tobacco control initiatives.
 
Although there are laws banning tobacco advertising on billboards and on television and radio, there is no explicit legislation restricting the sale of cigarettes to underage smokers.

The plaintiffs argue that the youth market was and still is important to the tobacco industry, citing a Philip Morris USA report dated March 31, 1981, which says: “Today’s teenager is tomorrow’s potential regular customer, and the overwhelming majority of smokers first begin to smoke while still in their teens.”
 
A similar document prepared for BAT, dated July 25, 1991, discusses the habits of younger smokers in Nigeria. “New smokers enter the market at a very early age in many cases: as young as 8 or 9 years seems to be quite common,” according to the report, entitled The Cigarette Market in Nigeria.

Anne Landman at PR Watch has a link to the 1991 memo and more details about it, including the physical and health benefits that many Nigerians ascribe to cigarettes.

Tobacco company documents aren’t the only source of evidence about Big Tobacco’s promotions in countries with less-stringent tobacco regulations; local health advocates are also sharing news with journals and NGOs. For instance, in the BMJ journal Tobacco Control (12:250, 2003), Adeola Akinremi and Seun Akioye of Journalists Advocacy for Safe Environment & Tobacco Eradication describe one of BAT’s promotional campaigns:

Last November, BAT launched a promotional campaign called “Experience It” in Nigeria, featuring five blockbuster Hollywood films. All five movies screened or advertised—Ocean’s Eleven, Matrix, ShowTime, Romeo Must Die, and Collateral Damage—are Warner Bros productions. The promotional campaign was national, reaching six geopolitical regions. At “Experience It” events, young people were given free cigarettes and “starters”, as they tend to be known among tobacco industry people, were helped to light them. The venue was a 500 seat dome with wide screen. BAT defended the campaign, saying that it was to “promote cinema culture”, but health advocates say the campaign was really used to launch new packaging for Rothmans cigarettes. Nigeria has no tobacco control regulation and the government actively supports BAT activities.

This attempt to appeal to youth interenst in Western culture gets further examination from medical student Chibuzo Odigwe in Student BMJ:

The average Nigerian youth tends to want to be as westernised as much as his or her present circumstances allow. Because smoking cigarettes is common in the Western societies of Europe and America he or she feels that smoking should be cultivated, to make him or her belong. This partly fuels the intense peer pressure that leads youths to smoke because they do not want to be left out.
 
The idea that smoking is a Western thing is conveyed mainly through films, music, and advertisements. The jingles and slogans are taken from well known European or American music. Advertisements on television play into the psyche of the youth population by depicting scenes in large European or American cities.

The Global Partnership for Tobacco Control works with grassroots tobacco-control groups in several different countries, and their website features photos (here, too) of cigarette ads from around the world – including many that link the products to a US lifestyle. After a 2004 visit to a partner group in Nigeria, GPTC’s Anna White reported:

Our Nigerian colleagues educated us about some of the tobacco control issues that are specific to their culture.  For example, it is common for children to go to the store to buy cigarettes for their dad. And cigarettes are a common gift at marriages.  Sometimes, even a specific brand is expected as part of the bride price!

When asked about BAT’s current activities in their country, our Nigerian colleagues offered a plethora of examples.  Here are just a few:

* DON’T SMOKE (JUST KIDDING). BAT has launched a “youth smoking prevention” program that features an “18+” logo, reinforcing the idea that smoking is an favorable adult activity.  The campaign is clearly an effort to preempt strong tobacco control legislation in the country.

* FUNDING CASH-STRAPPED GROUPS.  It is very difficult for Nigerian organizations to find sources of funding.  BAT has a foundation that offers grants to organizations.  This is an opportunity that many groups find difficult to pass up.

* DONATIONS TO CHURCHES.  One attendee said that BAT had offered a church a 24 passenger van and a generator (power outages are a frequent event, as the U.S. delegation discovered). The church wisely refused.

* EXCESSIVE PUBLICIZING OF “GOOD DEEDS.”  BAT donated about 20,000 naira (~ $150) of cloths to some village women.  The company then held a televised event at a hotel to publicize their “charitable” giving. Problem: the company spent far more on advertising its act of giving than on the gift itself. Sound familiar?

* SPONSORING ROADSHOW EVENTS.  Recently, BAT has de-emphasized its public advertising presence.  There are few tobacco billboards left in Lagos. It has increased sponsored events outside of Lagos, which are harder to monitor (that’s the point!)

* SPONSORING FASHION SHOWS. One cigarette brand — “St. Moritz” — promotes the idea that smoking is in vogue by supporting Nigerian fashion shows. View a related billboard (Lagos): [Link]

* SUING NGOS FOR LIBEL.  One of the groups in attendance told us that BAT had sued them for calling it a vampire. The suit was thrown out by a judge.

Other BAT examples mentioned included: funding of education researchers; “reforestation” programs that don’t plant trees where they are needed and fail to address desertification; free t-shirt & cigarette giveaways; and the founding of [front] groups.

Let’s hope that more international communication about tobacco company tactics and the effectiveness of different public health strategies will help reduce smoking rates worldwide.

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