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Bad news from South Africa: as if the country did not have enough problems, it was reported in December that Philip Morris (PM), which at present only imports its cigarettes, has been exploring the possibility of manufacturing them there. PM’s rival, BAT, has more than 90% of the market and PM, which already has a strong presence though its brewing subsidiary, SAB Miller, has been using the argument that BAT is being protected in a near monopoly status, to try to force the kind of entry it wants. Japan Tobacco (JT), too, used similar arguments when it complained recently to the competition commission that BAT was restricting its retail sales, indicating JT’s own intentions to try to sell more cigarettes in the beleaguered country.
What really worries health advocates is not so much the reputation of PM as the most ruthless promoter of tobacco; after all, South Africa has the region’s leading tobacco control legislation. More worrying is that, according to newspaper reports, in making its bid to a government desperate for economically beneficial investment from overseas, PM is asking for some of the regulations, existing and proposed, to be weakened. For example, it has reportedly been trying to persuade the government to scrap a proposed amendment to the tobacco control law that would ban cigarette displays in shops, saying that such displays would be the only way it could make smokers aware of its brands. It does not seem to have addressed the logical response, namely that the brands are already on the market, so likewise, smokers must already be aware of them. Nor has PM refrained from telling the government that its proposed ban on shop displays, like its high import duties on imported tobacco products—another skittle it wants to knock down—will not help meet the country’s public health goals, only maintain BAT’s near monopoly.
The argument usually employed by companies trying to open up monopoly markets is that prices will fall, thus benefiting consumers. In this case, even if PM remembered to keep quiet about that one, it is to be hoped that the government realises that this likely outcome would most certainly be against the interests of its health policy. The inappropriateness of a tobacco company advising a government on what will or will not meet health goals does not seem to have struck PM’s top executives; but there again, it is unlikely they would be in their jobs if they were sensitive to such niceties. If they succeed, we can only wait and see how badly they manage to affect South Africa’s struggle to free its people from tobacco addiction.
Depressingly, newspaper reports covering PM’s latest African adventure have given no hint that this might be bad news for the country’s people, but only reported it as if it were just another item of business news. It is not always recognised that South Africa’s high levels of tobacco consumption, always ahead of other countries in the region, are mostly a byproduct of the bad old days of apartheid. South Africa needs to keep going forwards, not be dragged backwards by those whose intentions are highly exploitative, and could not be further opposed to those of health.