For British American Tobacco (bat), Uzbekistan was paradise unexplored. And unexploited. But not for long. According to a recent paper in the February issue of the British Medical Journal, the tobacco giant did everything in its power to kill off a landmark decree, which could have protected the Uzbek population from the health hazards associated with smoking.
In 1994, after privatisation of the tobacco industry, bat entered into a monopolistic trade agreement with the then president, Islam Karimov. bat realised the goldmine in the country in 1993, when they came across just one electronic billboard. They soon noted that Uzbekistan was singularly unexploited in its advertising and promotional environment, with advertising costs low enough to afford multinationals unrestricted market access. bat, then, set off on its one-point agenda to market tobacco aggressively, projecting a 45 per cent increase in annual cigarette consumption between 1993 and 1999.
But a decree from the Uzbekistan's Chief Sanitary Doctor (csd) threw a spanner in bat's plans. The decree banned tobacco advertising and smoking in public places and issued health warnings against tobacco consumption. However, it didn't take bat even 24 hours to come out tooth and nail against the decree. bat interpreted the decree as a deterrent to foreign investment in Uzbekistan and refuted the health impacts of smoking, stating that there is no link between smoking and disease or that advertising would increase consumption. With the csd refusing to give in to bat's demands of amending the decree, bat subverted the whole process by approaching Karimov, who immediately accepted the demands. The original ban on advertising was pared down to a voluntary code, limiting it to institutions dealing with health and children only. Moreover, even with bat's claims of not encouraging the youth to smoke, the ban in educational institutes was removed. More impudently, bat promulgated the amended decree as an example of a responsible attitude towards tobacco advertising. With the roadblocks removed, bat managed to achieve a market share of 70 per cent and tobacco consumption has increased by eight per cent each year, mostly among young people. Cigarette sales rose by 51 per cent between 1990 and 1996.
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