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British American Tobacco (BAT) and Philip Morris face allegations that they targeted young and underage smokers in Nigeria to increase smoking rates in developing countries as sales decline in the West. Lawyers for Nigeria’s largest state, Kano, will argue today that the tobacco companies sponsored pop concerts and sporting events and, in some instances, gave away free cigarettes, to recruit minors to smoking.

Kano is one of four Nigerian states suing BAT Nigeria, its parent company in Britain and Philip Morris International to recover the costs of treating smoking-related diseases. They are seeking damages of at least $38.6 billion (£19.1 billion). Kano’s first hearing is today and cases in Gombe and Oyo begin tomorrow and Monday respectively. The Lagos case began in May and more states are expected to join.

“They want to prepare for a problem they know has already been created, as well as restrict the distribution of tobacco to young people,” said Babatunde Irukera, a lawyer representing the state governments. “The public health facilities are overtasked.” 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. A report prepared by the tobacco industry’s lobbying group in Nigeria, TACON, on October 18, 1981, detailed its strategy to defeat a Private Member’s Bill introduced in the House of Representatives to make provisions for warning cigarette smokers of the adverse health effects of smoking.

“It was decided that TACON’s main strategy should be to play down the health argument and concentrate instead on the economic,” the report said. “This proved to be the correct approach especially as Nigeria’s economy has been suffering . . . from the world recession.” In an internal memo dated May 13, 1991, BAT talked about the use of Nigerian artists to promote its Benson & Hedges (B&H) brand, saying: “The young adult music platform of the B&H label is the type of image enhancement we need in Nigeria.”

Stephen Swedlow, an American lawyer who is advising the Nigerian state governments, told The Times: “The international tobacco companies have to develop these . . . markets because the smoking rates in the US and the UK have consistently dropped, based on litigation in the US and public health pressures in the UK.”

A spokeswoman for BAT said that the allegations were completely unfounded. “We don’t market to children and we have never attempted to do so,” she said. “We also actively lobby governments to raise the age at which people are allowed to buy tobacco to 18.”

A spokesman for Philip Morris said: “Philip Morris International and its affiliates do not currently sell cigarettes in Nigeria.”

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  • Kimberly

    I think that between the truth commericals on TV in the USA and this article, and the countless cases that we have yet to hear about smoking needs to end. Whether through banning or shutting down the companies themselves.

  • Richard Eghaghe

    As a Journalist (Entertainment Writer in Nigeria, I have enough evidence, documents to prove this case against BAT. I have documents from the Benson & Hedges Golden Tones Concert in various parts of the country, including photograghs of cross-section of music fans including teenagers at the concert.I also have the ones from the Ruthmans cigarettes organised musical concerts of the 90s during which cigarette were freely circulated in the concert arena for who ever cares to have a taste. I support the suit against the tobacco co.

  • Richard Eghaghe

    i am a smoker and i am dying of smoking. yet, i find it difficult to stop. these tobacco companies must be made to pay the damages and shown the way out of our country.

  • octavia

    So cold….