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Leading tobacco firm is accused of bribery

BMJ 2015; 351 doi: https://doi.org/10.1136/bmj.h6501 (Published 01 December 2015) Cite this as: BMJ 2015;351:h6501
  1. Adrian O’Dowd
  1. 1London

One of the world’s major tobacco companies, British American Tobacco (BAT), has been accused of repeated bribery by the BBC’s Panorama investigative programme. The London based company has, however, strongly rejected the claims, saying that the sources of the programme’s information were unreliable and that, as a firm, it would never tolerate corruption.

In the programme, screened on 30 November, investigators said that they had found evidence that the company had bribed civil servants and senior politicians in various African countries to damage rival companies, corrupt parliaments, and undermine a World Health Organization initiative against smoking.

The programme (www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b006t14n) spoke to the whistleblower Paul Hopkins, a former employee who worked for BAT in Kenya for 13 years. Hopkins said in the programme that he was expected to bribe, break the law, apply pressure, and undermine commercial rivals.

“It was explained to me that this was the cost of doing business in Africa,” said Hopkins, who provided the programme with secretly recorded conversations between himself and his former boss and many documents allegedly showing the company’s knowledge and acceptance that bribes were taking place.

Hopkins was due to meet officials from the UK Serious Fraud Office this week to discuss these issues.

Panorama also claimed that BAT had targeted WHO’s Framework Convention on Tobacco Control, which has been signed by 180 countries. It claimed that in 2012 a BAT lobbyist arranged bribes for three public officials in Rwanda, Burundi, and the Comoros Islands, who were all connected to the framework convention. All three of these officials have denied accepting bribes. The lobbyist has also denied involvement in bribery.

The head of the secretariat of the framework convention, Vera Da Costa e Silva, said in the programme, “It [BAT] is a company that is irresponsible, to say the least. It is using bribery to profit at the cost of people’s lives—simple as that. BAT should be investigated by the government and should be punished accordingly.”

Panorama also claimed that BAT money had been used to buy influence with politicians, get information, and make changes to tobacco control legislation. It said it had evidence that Kasirivu Atwooki, a Ugandan MP who sat on a committee writing a report on a rival company, was allegedly given £20 000 (€28 000; $30 000) to make amendments to the report and hand it over to BAT in advance. He denies these allegations.

A BAT spokesman said, “We are disappointed that the BBC should decide to broadcast allegations made by former employees with a clear vendetta against us, whose employment was terminated in acrimonious circumstances and who present a completely false picture of the way BAT does business.

“We have made it clear to the BBC that their sources are unreliable and that we categorically deny the suggestion that this is how BAT operates around the world.

“We are rightly proud of the fact that any alleged breach of our very high expectations of transparency and honesty is swiftly investigated. We will not tolerate corruption in our business, no matter where it takes place.”

Harpal Kumar, chief executive of the charity Cancer Research UK, said, “These allegations need urgent attention by the appropriate authorities, both here and overseas.”

Deborah Arnott, chief executive of the antismoking charity Action on Smoking and Health, said, “Panorama’s shocking evidence must be investigated without delay. We will be writing to the government to demand that a criminal investigation under the Bribery Act is launched at once.”

Notes

Cite this as: BMJ 2015;351:h6501

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