One of the UK’s largest companies, British American Tobacco (BAT) is facing demands that it be investigated by the US Department of Justice, following allegations that it engaged in widespread bribery of politicians and policymakers in Africa.
Several Democratic senators and congressmen have written a letter calling for the department to launch an immediate investigation into BAT, the world’s second-largest publicly traded tobacco company, which has its headquarters in London.
The politicians, led by congressman Lloyd Doggett and senator Richard Blumenthal, suggest that BAT’s actions may have violated both the Anti-Bribery and the Foreign Corrupt Practices Acts (FCPA). If proven, the allegations – denied by BAT – could result in jail terms for the company’s executives.
Some of the allegations about BAT’s activities in parts of Africa first surfaced in a BBC Panorama documentary last year. Since then, US lawmakers say that additional documents have come to light, which they claim suggest alleged bribery may have been more widespread than previously thought.
It is alleged that the documents raise questions as to whether BAT paid people off to protect its corporate reputation and to cover up scandals, including environmental damage caused by a warehouse fire in Uganda. There are also claims that the company engaged in corporate espionage and the sabotage of competitors in Kenya. “If true, these allegations would demonstrate a deplorable choice by BAT to balloon its profits through bribery at the expense of the health of millions,” said Doggett. “Any corporation that enjoys the benefits of our stock exchange must comply with our anti-bribery laws.”
The US is a signatory to the World Health Organisation’s global tobacco treaty, set up to stop tobacco companies from influencing policy. The treaty, which protects more than 90% of the world’s population, could save 200 million lives by 2050 if fully implemented. But measures to undermine it, by illegally influencing politicians, limit the treaty’s impact.
“The tobacco industry has a long history of placing profits above public health and these allegations raise clear questions about whether BAT violated the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act – a question the DoJ must answer,” said Blumenthal, who sits on the judiciary committee which oversees the FCPA.
“With tobacco companies exploiting growth opportunities in Africa, actions like BAT’s threaten to undermine the WHO’s global tobacco treaty and condemn the entire continent to generations of smoking, cancer and preventable death.”
Smoking-related diseases cause six million deaths a year worldwide, making tobacco the largest preventable cause of death, according to health experts. Successfully expanding operations in Africa is crucial to the future fortunes of big tobacco. The number of adult smokers on the continent is projected to increase from 77 million in 2013 to 572 million by the end of the century.
Pressure groups seeking to check big tobacco’s influence would welcome a Department of Justice investigation. “In the 1990s, the public health movement exposed big tobacco’s lies about nicotine’s addictiveness and tobacco’s links to cancer, sparking a cascade of litigation and US tobacco control policies,” said John Stewart, deputy campaign director of Corporate Accountability International. “This investigation could be the next critical chapter in holding this deadly industry accountable for its abuses, preventing the expansion of the single largest preventable epidemic on the planet.”
A British American Tobacco spokesman said that the company would comply with any investigation.
“We have not heard from the US Department of Justice regarding any of the historic allegations made by Panorama last year but, if we do, we will of course cooperate with them,” the spokesman said. “In the meantime, we take the allegations of historic misconduct in East Africa extremely seriously and are working with our external legal counsel to fully investigate all these claims.”
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