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Consolidation in the tobacco industry
  1. Hammond & Purcell Consulting
  2. 88 Norwich Street
  3. San Francisco, California 94110, USA;
  4. margross{at}

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    A quiet revolution has taken place in the international tobacco industry in the past 10 years. Riding the wave of economic liberalisation and free trade pushed by developed countries and the international financial institutions, the cigarette companies have massively increased their manufacturing capacity in developing countries and in the countries of eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union. Although politicians and many tobacco control advocates still talk of the multinational tobacco companies “exporting death and disease”, the reality is that more and more of the causes of this death and disease are being manufactured locally, from China to Mexico to Russia. In fact, Philip Morris, RJ Reynolds, and British American Tobacco (BAT), the world’s three largest multinational cigarette companies, now each own or lease plants in at least 50 countries spanning all corners of the globe.

    A number of factors have driven this overseas expansion, including: the opening up of formerly closed economies in eastern Europe, the former Soviet Union, and China; pressure on governments by the international financial institutions to privatise previously state-owned industries and to relax laws restricting foreign investment; the attempt by these countries to attract foreign investment through the provision of tax incentives and the lifting of import duties; cheaper labour and transport costs; the threat of further regulation in the multinational companies’ home countries; the attempt by these companies to shield an increasing proportion of their assets from lawsuits in developed countries; and the desire to locate cigarette manufacturing plants closer to sources of tobacco leaf, an increasing proportion of which is being purchased overseas.

    Certainly the United States is still the world’s largest exporter of cigarettes. As home to two of the world’s three largest multinational cigarette companies, it exported 217 billion cigarettes in 1997. Yet this was an 11% drop from the previous year, “due to greater offshore production by US manufacturers”, according to an analysis by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA).1Increasingly, the cigarettes sold abroad by the multinationals are being manufactured there as well. In 1997, for example, only 18% of the cigarettes RJ Reynolds sold overseas were made in the United States.2

    The drop in American cigarette exports has coincided with record sales and profits for the multinational companies’ overseas operations. In recent years, Philip Morris, RJ Reynolds, and BAT have all registered double-digit growth in international cigarette sales, the payoff for a decade of heavy overseas spending on buying newly privatised cigarette companies, setting up joint ventures, building distribution and sales networks, and, of course, advertising.

    The “Big Three”

    Philip Morris is the world’s largest multinational cigarette company, controlling about 16% of the global cigarette market, with its Marlboro brand alone accounting for 8.4% of global cigarette consumption.3 The company has subsidiaries, affiliates, and licensing agreements in 54 countries around the world,4 and at least a 15% market share in more than 40 countries. Philip Morris’s international tobacco unit is its fastest growing in terms of profit and sales. Since 1990, the company’s cigarette sales have risen by only 4.7% in the United States, but by 80% overseas,5 while profits from international sales have risen by 71% since 1993.6 In 1997, the company’s international tobacco unit made a profit of US$4.6 billion on revenues of $26.39 billion, marking the first time that the company has made more cigarette profits abroad than domestically.7

    These profits are due in large part to Philip Morris’s heavy overseas spending. In the past two years alone, the company has spent more than $1 billion to acquire, build, and modernise factories in foreign countries, including Poland, Russia, Romania, Portugal, Malaysia, Brazil, Lithuania, and Ukraine. In 1997, it made one of its largest purchases ever when it plunked down $400 million for a controlling interest in Mexico’s second largest cigarette maker, Cigatam. The acquisition strengthens the company’s already formidable presence in Mexico (Marlboro currently has a 30% market share in the country8), helps the company’s efforts to produce low-cost cigarettes for export to North America and Asia, and according to former United States Surgeon General C Everett Koop, could be part of company preparations to flood the United States with “black market” cigarettes should American cigarette taxes rise dramatically.9

    BAT is the world’s second largest multinational cigarette company. With subsidiaries in 65 countries,4 BAT controls about 15% of the global cigarette market,3 and manufactures more than half of its cigarettes in Asia, Australia, and Latin America. In 1997, the company’s international tobacco operations made a profit of $2 billion on sales of $23.7 billion.10 Like Philip Morris, BAT has also been beefing up its productive capacity abroad. Since 1996, the company has spent more than $2 billion acquiring or upgrading manufacturing facilities in countries such as Cambodia, Lebanon, Russia, Turkey, and Uzbekistan. In 1997, the company made its biggest purchase ever when it paid a whopping $1.7 billion to acquire Cigarrera La Moderna (CLM), Mexico’s biggest cigarette manufacturer.11 The purchase will help consolidate the company’s dominance of the Latin American market, where it currently holds a 60% share (almost double that of Philip Morris), and will significantly increase BAT’s ability to boost exports to the United States as well as Asia, because CLM already has a strong presence in Asian countries such as Cambodia, China, Laos, and Vietnam.12 BAT may also use Mexico as a base from which to export tobacco leaf to its plants in the United States, because Mexico is exempt from American import quotas on tobacco.13

    RJ Reynolds (RJR), the world’s third largest multinational cigarette company, has recently fallen further behind Philip Morris and BAT. Saddled with a huge debt load (the result of a failed takeover bid in the late 1980s made famous in the book Barbarians at the gate), RJR saw its international tobacco profits decline 5% in 1997 to $759 million on sales of $3.57 billion,14 sparking speculation among Wall Street analysts that the company may enter into an alliance with BAT.15 Although smaller than its two rivals, RJ Reynolds is still a huge multinational company, with subsidiaries, affiliates, and licensing agreements in 57 countries.4 The company, which controls about 4% of the global cigarette market, has seen a 75% increase in its international sales since 1990, with international sales now accounting for 41% of RJR’s total tobacco sales.14 Since 1995, RJ Reynolds has been busy acquiring new overseas operations, adding facilities in countries including Finland, Poland, Russia, Tunisia, Turkey, and Vietnam. In Tanzania, the company paid $55 million for a controlling share of the Tanzanian Cigarette Company, the single largest foreign investment in Tanzania since the country achieved independence in 1961.16 RJR has ambitious plans to rehabilitate the formerly state-owned company’s Dar Es Salaam plant and to challenge BAT’s virtual monopoly in the eastern and southern African regions.17

    To put the size of these companies into perspective, the combined revenues of the “Big Three” from international tobacco sales in 1997 was greater than the gross national product of Ireland, or the combined gross national product of more than 30 sub-Saharan African countries. In 1997, Philip Morris alone took in more revenues from overseas tobacco sales than the gross national product of countries as diverse as Kuwait, Kenya, Lithuania, Vietnam, or Ecuador.18

    The “Big Three” meet the other “Big Three”

    During the recent congressional debate on tobacco legislation in the United States, the cigarette companies often invoked the plight of the American tobacco farmer to argue against increased taxes and other tobacco control measures. Yet this concern has taken a back seat to the drive for higher profit margins. During the past decade, these companies have been using more and more foreign-grown tobacco in their American and foreign factories. By 1993, these companies were importing more than 450 000 kilos of tobacco into the United States, up from 187 000 kilos three years earlier; between 1995 and 1996, these imports rose an additional 21%.1

    Overseas, the cigarette companies have also been using more and more foreign leaf rather than importing American-grown tobacco. Most of what they purchase overseas comes from three large American-based corporations that dominate the global trade in tobacco leaf—Universal Corporation, Dimon Incorporated, and Standard Commercial Corporation—which had combined revenues of $7.9 billion in 1997. In scores of countries around the world, these three companies buy, process, pack, and ship leaf tobacco for sale to the cigarette companies. As the cigarette companies expand their global reach, so too have the leaf companies. Yet the costs of global expansion have led to a rapid consolidation in the leaf processing industry, with the number of major companies going from eight to three in the past few years.

    As world demand grows for American cigarettes and the mild tobacco mixture known as “American blend”, the leaf companies have also begun to play a major role in financing the production of tobacco overseas. In many countries they receive down payments from the cigarette companies to deliver a set amount of leaf. “They then use that down payment to provide cash advances to growers in countries such as Brazil, helping to finance farmers there without putting their own funds at risk,” according to the Washington Post.19

    ”The world market is where the bulk of the growth is,” says Universal vice-president James Starkey III. With operations in 30 countries around the globe, Universal realised a profit of $237 million on revenues of $4.1 billion in 1997.20 In the early 1990s, Universal and Philip Morris jointly purchased a newly privatised tobacco-processing company from the Kazakhstan government. In China, the company manages a new leaf-processing plant with the understanding that a minimum of 70% of the tobacco will be exported. “It’s the only export operation in China managed by a foreign company,” Starkey says.19 The company’s latest joint venture is with RJ Reynolds in Azerbaijan, where it will develop and boost tobacco production.21 “We’re continually looking for opportunities for expansion,”19 says Starkey.

    Dimon Inc. made a profit of $177 million in 1997 on sales of almost $2.5 billion.22 With operations in 36 countries, Dimon recently acquired British-based Intabex Holdings Worldwide SA, which was the fourth largest leaf tobacco dealer in the world. With leaf buying, processing, and exporting operations in the United States, Brazil, Argentina, Malawi, Italy, Zimbabwe, and Thailand, the acquisition has helped Dimon become Universal’s main competitor.19

    Standard Commercial Corporation is the smallest of the three big leaf companies, making a relatively small profit of $38 million on revenues of $1.3 billion in 1997.23 Yet it is has been extremely active lately in expanding its foreign holdings. In August 1997, the company announced plans for a joint venture with the Chinese government to construct a factory for processing tobacco for domestic use and for export. The company is to supply and oversee the installation of the processing machinery, and to provide “expertise in the growing, grading and selection of export quality leaf tobacco.” According to Standard’s chief executive officer Robert Harrison, the company sees “great potential to increase exports from China”.24 Two months later, the company announced the construction of similar factories in India and Tanzania. The Indian plant will process and market tobacco, primarily for export.25 In Tanzania, Standard purchased a minority interest in the sole leaf-processing factory in the country (which had been operated by the state-owned Tanzania Tobacco Board) from Universal Corporation, which had acquired it earlier in the year. Tanzania is increasingly viewed as an important source for filler-style tobacco.26


    As in the rest of the corporate world, the imperatives of globalisation have led to increasing consolidation within the cigarette and tobacco-leaf processing industries. As the size and power of the multinational tobacco companies grow, governments, responding to powerful commercial interests that advocate for completely open markets and unfettered trade, have become more reluctant to interfere in the workings of the market. Thus it remains to be seen whether arguments for either public health concerns or a longer-term cost-benefit analysis can be brought to bear in the debate over whether and how to regulate the activities of the multinational tobacco companies. Likewise, policymakers in developed countries concerned about these companies’ overseas operations must look beyond regulating exports and must start finding ways to restrict their ability to invest abroad (for example, through the removal of tax breaks) if they want to truly stop them from “exporting death and disease”.


    Research for this article was originally carried out for the publication Addicted to profit: Big Tobacco’s expanding global reach, funded in part by Proposition 99, the 1988 California Tobacco Tax Initiative, under contract 89-97927.