It’s About Time…
In 1998, 47 of 50 U.S. State Attorney Generals negotiated a landmark 206 billion dollar settlement with the major tobacco industry giants. They forged the historic Master Settlement Agreement, (MSA), which provided compensation to the states for reimbursement of Medicaid/Medicare costs associated with treating uninsured citizens from tobacco related illnesses. In addition to the monetary settlement the binding agreement also restricted the tobacco industry from certain practices that were deemed illegal, immoral, and/or unethical. The breadth and depth of these practices had only come to light because of the discovery process when the tobacco industry was forced to release millions of pages of confidential internal documents.
As the MSA was negotiated, approved, and finalized, the U.S. based multi-national tobacco companies launched massive public relations campaigns to tell the world how they were changing. Although they made billions from selling a deadly but legal, “complicated, controversial” product, they really now wanted to become good, responsible corporate citizens. They promised that they would never again engage in the reprehensible actions that their own internal documents had revealed. These giants just wanted to take their medicine, stabilize their industry, and get back to the business of honestly making and marketing their deadly product.
During the MSA negotiations, the issue of “same standards” was raised for the international market. Such “same standards” would have benefited the young people of other countries by providing them with the same protections afforded American youth by the U.S.’s hard won gains against an adversary that had heretofore appeared invincible. These protections would have been all that stood between the poor young of developing countries and the calculated machinations of big tobacco. Sadly that conversation was rejected by big tobacco. The industry negotiators knew full well that the U.S. constituted only 4% of the global market. They were willing to be restricted here, if they could still have free reign over the rest of the world. Big Tobacco knew that the future is in the emerging economies of countries in Africa, Asia, and Latin America. Many of these are easy prey countries that are often in turmoil, countries with few regulations and little enforcement.
Nigeria and other countries in Africa are amongst the tobacco industry’s latest targets. There are few if any regulations on the marketing and sale of cigarettes and the industry’s strategies are working. Smoking rates have increased 20% in Lagos, a large state in Nigeria. Unlike the United States, “single cigarettes” are frequently sold. This makes them more accessible to the nations youth and also gets around the mandatory health warnings on cigarette packages. The sell of single cigarettes contributes to the 18% smoking prevalence rate of Nigerian youth.
But Nigeria, home to 140 million people and the eighth most populous country in the world is fighting back. Nigeria is seeking over $38 billion USD from those same tobacco companies to compensate for the cost of treating smoking-related diseases and illnesses. Nigeria also accuses big tobacco of deliberately promoting smoking among Nigerian youth and with 42% of it population under 14 years of age the future is indeed bright for tobacco industry coffers. The lawsuit is seeking compensation from British American Tobacco, Phillip Morris (Altria) and International Tobacco. Though it has taken a full decade the world is changing! The Nigerian government modeled its lawsuit after the cases negotiated in the United States in 1998. The amount of damages Nigeria seeks is considerably more than its annual operating budget, but Nigeria has not demanded money alone. The government is also seeking restrictions limiting the marketing practices of the industry. Tobacco companies have denied the grounds of the suit and insist that they are “socially responsible businesses which do not target children.”
As other countries, one-by-one- join the assault against Big Tobacco, the “whole world out there” strategy of these multi-national giants might work start working against them.
The battle will not be easy. In recent years tobacco companies have stepped up their marketing and investments in Nigeria. British American Tobacco, a company that holds a 75% market share in Nigeria, recently spent $150 million constructing a Nigerian tobacco factory. Which will build tobacco industry support by providing much needed employment opportunities. The marketing strategy of tobacco giants is no secret. Plaintiffs’ lawyers in the case reveal that they have uncovered details of the marketing strategy in Nigeria from those same industry documents that brought about the United States’ Master Settlement Agreement with Big Tobacco. Yemi Osinbago, the Lagos Attorney General states, “We came across information which established that there has been a deliberate design on the part of the tobacco companies to conscript young underage persons into smoking.”
Carol McGruder, (email@example.com) is the Project Director of Communities Under Siege (C.U.S.)/United Against The Globalization of Big Tobacco