Several U.S. Senators and Congresspeople have signed a letter to the U.S. Department of Justice urging the agency to begin an investigation into bribery accusations against British-American Tobacco.
I wrote about some of these accusations a few weeks ago here. However, according to the letter from Congresspeople, the accusations go beyond those exposed in a recent BBC documentary about British-American Tobacco.
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.”
According to a BBC documentary on British-American Tobacco, the company was bribing officials in African nations to weaken laws regarding tobacco marketing and packaging. Tobacco companies have been pulling out all the stops, including intimidation, threats of lawsuits and getting the U.S. Chamber of Commerce to pressure countries to combat any kind of anti-smoking measures in small nations, which simply don’t have the money or resources to fend off these powerful companies.
The nations involved in the BBC documentary include Rwanda, Burundi and the Comoros Islands.
Though British-American Tobacco is based in the UK, the company is the third-largest tobacco comglomerate in the U.S., behind Philip Morris and RJ Reynolds. BAT brands include Pall Mall, Lucky Strike, Kool, Kent and Benson & Hedges. British American Tobacco is already under investigation in the UK and has publicly stated that whatever bribery schemes took place were the result of a “rogue employee.”
Judge Richard J. Leon ruled this week that graphic warnings on cigarette packs violate the First Amendment, because, essentially, they go too far in forcing tobacco companies to advertise something against their will that goes against their own self-interests (Basically, there is a judicial precedent that as part of the First Amendment you can’t be forced to say something you don’t want to say. The government can require written labels on cigarette packs, but graphic images go too far in provoking an emotional reaction against the tobacco companies’ own product, the judge ruled.)
“The government’s interest in advocating a message cannot and does not outweigh plaintiff’s First Amendment right to not be the government’s messenger,” Judge Leon wrote.
This is a bummer, but after the injunction, I wasn’t very optimistic. The Justice Department and Obama administration can appeal the decision (They’ve already appealed the injunction, which was imposed late last year. I guess that appeal is moot now). It would first go to a Circuit Court of Appeals, but I expect it would eventually go before the U.S. Supreme Court, and with the incredibly pro-corporate judges on the Supreme Court, I’m not optimistic this ruling would get overturned.
Again, a bummer. Most of the countries in the West require these graphic images on cigarette packs, but in the U.S., it appears the tobacco companies will squirm out of it. Unfortunately, for the moment, the First Amendment seems to be on the tobacco companies’ side.
An interesting story here. The Department of Justice is urging Big Tobacco (RJ Reynolds, Altria and Lollilard) to admit that for decades, it lied about the safety of “light” cigarettes and that it lied about how addictive nicotine is.
These “corrective statements” are part of a 2006 federal judge’s decision that Big Tobacco had engaged in racketeering (while it was an amazing ruling, that judge unfortunately did not hand down any monetary punishment). This is part of their “punishment,” so to speak. This was a civil case, not criminal, so no one is going to jail.
The DOJ wants Big Tobacco to make its admissions in major newspaper advertising and on cigarette packaging.
Here are the two statement’s the DOJ is demanding:
“We falsely marketed low tar and light cigarettes as less harmful than regular cigarettes to keep people smoking and sustain our profits. We knew that many smokers switch to low tar and light cigarettes rather than quitting because they believe low tar and lights are less harmful. They are NOT.”
“We told Congress under oath that we believed nicotine is not addictive. We told you that smoking is not an addiction and all it takes to quit is willpower. Here’s the truth: Smoking is very addictive. And it’s not easy to quit. We manipulated cigarettes to make them more addictive.”
Big Tobacco is of course resisting and will be submitting their own proposed statements to the judge. I hope the judge makes the right decision.