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Kenya: BAT at it again—but it's changed

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We have reported extensively in past issues on the disgraceful seminars held by BAT for journalists from developing countries, to “put the other side”, give a “more balanced view”, and generally assist them, industry style, with their journalistic work on the smoking “debate” or “controversy”. Now it has done it again, despite protestations issued in countries where incriminating internal documents have been widely exposed, that it has changed its ways. Sure, BAT, like rival Philip Morris, has put together a website that appears to acknowledge the scientific evidence against active (though expressly not passive) smoking. However, a cursory glance by anyone with more than a passing interest will see what an incomplete, unsatisfactory collection of weasel words and agenda changing much of it is. However, as is evident from so many of the items in this journal, what seems to have changed is the strategy rather than overall behaviour.

So it was that in May, a group of east African journalists were flown to what a lucky recipient of BAT's largesse described as one of Kenya's most prestigious hotels, the luxurious Windsor Golf and Country Club. This time the seminar's faculty appears to have lacked the outside “experts” of the past, perhaps because some of the minor academic establishments or private foundations they tended to represent objected to the intellectual prostitution with which they were inevitably linked by greedy employees. So it was left to BAT staff to try to demonstrate first, that the company had changed, and second, that they were no longer accountable for past practices, even though present practices in marketing and public relations seem little or no different.

Certainly the approach is more subtle—out with obvious denials of the evidence on disease and addiction, in with a new array of weasel words and better techniques for clouding the issues. After a passing reference to established risk, BAT's Mr Keith Gratton put up a thick smokescreen of allegedly unresolved questions. For example, he exploited an old favourite, the fact that science still has to determine why the majority of smokers do not contract lung cancer. He then charged poor, abused science with having to divide the blame between smoking and the role played by factors such as family history, diet, and the environment. Even his acceptance of the risks of tobacco was densely hedged by unspecific reservations, and he could not resist leading on to another industry regular, the myth of free choice in starting to smoke. “We accept that in the most simple sense, smoking is a cause of certain serious diseases,” he was reported to have told the journalists, but the risks were well known and “people still decide to smoke”. So that's all right then.

Students of communications could write a doctorate on the role of this sort of language in pretending to address the fact that cigarettes are addictive and kill about half their users. But who needs such finesse when the effect of the seminar on a senior journalist can be so decisively pro-tobacco? Mr Kyazze Simwogerere, editor of Uganda'sSunday Monitor, was reported by another Ugandan newspaper as saying that, compared to AIDS, fast cars or cholesterol, “tobacco is just a soft option. It's hard to stand these moralistic, puritanical guys who are just gripping onto a cause for the sake of pushing a cause.” BAT may have changed the detail, but in this dark purpose, as with its promotional activities in east Africa, it hasn't changed a bit.