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Too big to care – the bribes of big tobacco
December 7, 2015, 10:39 am
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British American Tobacco (BAT), the multinational British firm and one of the world’s largest tobacco companies, is once again infamously in the news — this time for bribery.

Pat Hopkins, who worked at BAT in Kenya for 13 years, has accused his former employer of bribing politicians and civil servants in several East African countries to further the company’s interests. He said the company had told him that [bribery] was the cost of doing business in Africa.

The whistle-blower provided a BBC investigative program with hundreds of secret documents to show that BAT made illegal payments on numerous occasions, including to members of the World Health Organization (WHO) to evade the United Nations Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (FCTC). The FCTC campaign aims to reduce deaths among children and adults from tobacco-related diseases and urges governments to enact laws to restrict the marketing and availability of tobacco.

The documents reveal that an FCTC representative from Burundi, Godefroid Kamwenubusa, and a representative from the Comoros Islands, Chaibou Bedja Abdou, were both paid $3,000. A former representative from Rwanda, Bonaventure Nzeyimana, was paid $20,000. All three men however denied taking bribes from BAT.

Emails and other documents shared by Mr. Hopkins also show the company paid bribes to undermine anti-smoking legislation. In return for the illegal payment to Mr. Kamwenubusa, BAT had demanded a draft copy of Burundi’s Tobacco Control Bill. Another email from a contractor working for BAT says that Mr. Kamwenubusa would be able to "accommodate any amendments before the president signs".

Shortly before he left the company, Mr. Hopkins also secretly recorded a discussion with a BAT lawyer about making final payments to his informants. He can be heard telling the lawyer some contacts would need paying "to keep their mouths shut". The lawyer, Naushad Ramoly, is recorded saying: "That is what we are going to be paying. Yeah, OK, fine. Anything else that you think we will need to be paying for?"

Mr. Hopkins now plans to meet with investigators from the United Kingdom’s Serious Fraud Office. Under the UK Bribery Act, British companies can be prosecuted for bribery anywhere in the world if they fail to take steps to prevent it. BAT could also face prosecution and huge fines in the US.

But Mr. Hopkins is not the only one to accuse BAT; Solomon Muyita, a former lobbyist in Uganda, has charged BAT in court of asking him to pay off dozens of people. Court documents from his case claim that David Bahati, a Ugandan MP, who proposed an anti-tobacco bill, had been recruited to spy on anti-smoking activists. In another case, Dr. Kasirivu Atwooki, a Ugandan MP who sat on a committee writing a report on a rival company, was allegedly given $30,000 to make amendments in the document and give it to BAT in advance.

The bribing scandals probably stem from the company’s Core Beliefs which states: “We believe the tobacco industry should have a voice in the formation of government policies affecting it.” In response to the bribery allegations, BAT said any company could fall victim to an employee acting inappropriately. They added, "Our accusers in this program left us in acrimonious circumstances and have a vendetta against us, clearly demonstrated by the false picture they present of how we do business."

However, this is not the first time that BAT has been accused of wrongdoing.

In 2007, the Nigerian federal government filed a lawsuit against BAT and two other tobacco companies seeking $42.4 billion in anticipatory costs against the future cost of treating Nigerians for tobacco-related illnesses. The government also fined the company $1.04 billion for targeting Nigerian youth with advertising and marketing through branded music events and competitions.

The company also faces a similar lawsuit in Canada, where the government is bringing the largest class action lawsuit in Canadian history against three tobacco companies, including BAT, for potential payout of US$27.30 billion in damages and penalties to recover healthcare costs caused by smoking.

In Europe, Corporate Europe Observatory, which investigates corporate lobbying in the European Union, accused BAT of spending more than $740,000 on lobbying the EU in 2008. This was up to four times as much as the company declared on the EU's register of interest representatives, and according to the report, this hidden lobbying activities were clearly not in the public interest.

During 2012, BAT joined the other two main tobacco companies, Philip Morris and Imperial Tobacco Company in an unsuccessful bid to sue the Australian government. They argued that the country’s plain packaging legislation was unconstitutional because it usurped the companies' intellectual property rights and good will on other than just terms.

And, earlier this year, BAT spokesman Scott McIntyre publicly threatened to swamp Australia with cheap tobacco unless the Australian government reversed its plans to increase tobacco excise, causing accusations of blackmail and leading to calls for the tobacco industry to be outlawed as a threat to Australia's national security.

BAT has a ready supply of cheap cigarettes just for this purpose. In 2001 it invested $7.1 million in North Korean state-owned enterprise, Korea Sogyong Trading Corporation, which produces over two billion cigarettes a year. BAT claims that the cigarettes are produced only for consumption in North Korea, although there are allegations that the cigarettes have been smuggled for sale overseas.

Many of the egregious practices uncovered in documents, documentaries and its actions around the world are in violation of BAT’s own ‘Standards of Business Conduct’ (SoBC). In a separate chapter titled ‘Bribery and Corruption’, the SoBC clearly states: “It is wholly unacceptable for Group companies, employees, or our business partners to be involved or implicated in any way in corrupt practices…We should never engage in: offering or making an unauthorized payment, or authorizing an improper payment (cash or otherwise) to a public official, or any related person inducing a public official to do something illegal.”

In his preface message to the SoBC, Nicandro Durante, CEO of BAT writes: “The BAT Way calls for us to take personal responsibility for maintaining rigorous ethical standards. They reflect… how much we value honesty, openness and integrity at British American Tobacco.”

Documents from a recent employment tribunal hearing into the bribery scandal show that BAT itself regarded the illegal payments as just one of a series of “unlawful bribes”. Is there a lawful bribe that we do not know about; is it yet another oxymoron from a moronic industry; or is it just the BAT way?

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