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As members of the south Asian diaspora around the world celebrated the 60th anniversary of the partition of India, the creation of Pakistan and the independence of the two countries from their former colonial rulers, some in the region had cause to ponder how little some things had changed. In another former British colony just to the south, tobacco control advocates saw how the future health of their people continued to be jeopardised by the activities of a transnational tobacco company based in the UK. Moreover, they noted just how similar its tactics remained to those used for generations back in “the old country” for fostering influence with the government. Even if the “old boy” network had faded a bit at home, it appeared to be alive and well in Sri Lanka.
As the 8th international congress on AIDS in Asia and the Pacific (ICAAP) was about to open in the capital, Colombo, in August, health advocates learned that the chairman and another director of BAT’s 90% owned subsidiary, CTC (Ceylon Tobacco Company), were members of the conference finance committee. Public health workers maintained that their presence was a serious conflict of interest, and said it was yet another subtle strategy of BAT to build its image as a socially responsible company. After all, they reasoned, since BAT used the experience of its board members to further its business interests, both in the boardroom and behind the scenes, it seemed unlikely that the company would be averse to exploiting the service rendered to the conference by its directors, in whatever capacity, if that would give it an advantage in maintaining business as usual.
The two BAT men, CTC’s chairman Mr Ken Balendra and his fellow director Mr Deva Rodrigo, between them must have a vast list of influential contacts. Mr Balendra also chairs the South Asia Regional Fund sponsored by the Commonwealth Development Corporation for investment in South Asia, and in the past has been chairman of the Ceylon Chamber of Commerce, the Securities and Exchange Commission, and the Insurance Board of Sri Lanka. Mr Rodrigo’s CV, too, contains a wealth of blue chip appointments.
The aim of tobacco control legislation, if it is really to be effective, must be to reduce consumption, for that holds by far greatest potential to prevent the vast amount of premature death, disease and disability caused by tobacco. And good works by worthy individuals must be worth something to BAT when trying to persuade governments not to pass tobacco control proposals that might actually be effective, which would mean reducing consumption.
Thirty years ago, in the infancy of tobacco control in the UK, tobacco companies such as BAT had people embedded in every conceivable part of British public life, from government and quasi-government organisations, to culture, sport and just about anything else that enabled contact with those who ultimately held the key to their long term future. It is only in comparatively recent times that members of most self respecting organisations have preferred not to sit down with the brown mafia.
Despite what is now a long history of active tobacco control exposing the many tricks of the tobacco industry to recruit and keep Sri Lankans smoking, citizens like the BAT directors, albeit with a long record of public service as well as top level business and commercial experience, are still available for appointment by BAT. Of more concern is that there still seem to be many in the health community, as well as in government, who do not understand how it all works, and continue to appoint them to prestigious positions where, however innocent the individuals’ intentions may be, BAT can reap the most inappropriate corporate rewards.
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