Companies like British American Tobacco are using the same tactics they used in the global north to delay legislation in the global south

Global corporations work hard to persuade the public of their commitment to corporate social responsibility. British American Tobacco, for example, declares on its website that “as the world’s most international tobacco group, we are in a position to take the lead in defining and demonstrating what a socially responsible tobacco company should be”. It goes on to set out five core beliefs that underpin its “high standards of behaviour and integrity”. The evidence that the Guardian is publishing this week – at the start of a two-year project intended to show just how the global tobacco industry works – suggests that the distance between the words and the deeds of this huge and powerful company is about the size of the distance from the developed to the developing world.

A generation of campaigners in western Europe and north America are familiar with the devious tactics that are now in play in Africa and Asia. The wickedly slow pace of change from 1949, when the link between smoking and cancer was first established, to the introduction of plain packaging in the UK nearly 70 years later, owes everything to the sustained campaign the industry fought against regulation that would limit the harm of smoking. It was fought in the public domain, in carefully placed reports that undermined medical research or questioned the impact of proposals like plain packaging. And it was fought privately, in privileged access to politicians, sometimes indirectly by other interested parties. The most notorious example was the Ecclestone affair in 1997, when a Labour pledge to ban tobacco advertising at all sports events was suddenly and inexplicably withdrawn. It soon emerged that the Formula One boss, Bernie Ecclestone, had donated £1m to Labour, and that there were hopes of more to come.

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