Interference by Big Tobacco in South Asia warrants a closer look

Aishwarya Ashok, Upendra Bhojani, Shivam Kapoor and Pranay Lal

South Asia experiences unprecedented levels of tobacco industry interference and the COVID-19 pandemic exposed the sheer vulnerability of the region. When Bangladesh was on the brink of a nationwide lockdown, two Transnational Tobacco Companies (TTCs) lobbied the government to continue cigarette production claiming them to be “essential commodities”. While the industry in the region is an ‘evolving hydra’ offering several forms of tobacco beyond the conventional cigarette, subsidiaries of TTCs (namely Japan Tobacco International (JTI), British American Tobacco (BAT) and Philip Morris International (PMI)) thrive here. We highlight features of the region and make a case for a regional-level inquiry on TTCs.

Colonial Legacy

The shared colonial history of large parts of South Asia paved the way for the presence and industrial-scale production of tobacco in the region. Tobacco alongside other crops fuelled colonial empires. British colonies were anticipated markets of BAT and by 1906, BAT established fully-owned subsidiaries in India and Sri Lanka (then Ceylon). A century later, as of 2020, BAT remains a dominant player holding stakes in its subsidiaries in Pakistan (95%), Sri Lanka (84%), Bangladesh (73%), India (29%) and Nepal (2%). In Pakistan and Sri Lanka, BAT continues to control the management of these subsidiaries. We are yet to fully understand how companies like BAT survived the transition to postcolonial regimes which were brought about by the socio-political awakening. This awakening included the popular rejection of cigarettes as ‘foreign’ goods as part of the Swadeshi Movement in the independence struggles of British India in the early 1900s, including today’s Pakistan and Bangladesh and Sri Lanka.

Promoting Tobacco Production

All South Asian countries except Afghanistan cultivate tobacco. The British colonial powers promoted cultivation to generate new supplies of tobacco for the thriving cigarette industry in Europe, the USA and internationally. The region became a major tobacco producer with India alone producing 761,335 tonnes of tobacco in 2020, the third-largest producer of tobacco in the world after Brazil and China. The tobacco industry provides several incentives for tobacco production, especially for cigarette tobacco. In India, the cigarette industry promotes its treatment of tobacco farmers as “Corporate Social Responsibility” including felicitating “best tobacco farmers” at highly publicised events. In Bangladesh, cigarette companies offer free seeds to tobacco farmers while assuring them good prices for their crops and supplying them with solar power. The Tobacco Board of India, a statutory body to promote the tobacco industry provides several incentives and support measures for growers of Flue-cured Virginia (cigarette) tobacco including minimum support prices, auction support and other technical and financial support measures.

It is important to note here that despite the early attempts by colonial actors pushing the ‘plantation’ model, tobacco cultivation in the region mainly comprises vulnerable, small-holder tobacco growers. Efforts at promoting alternative safer livelihoods for tobacco farmers persist, yet progress has been slow. It is crucial to study the role of the government and the tobacco industry in tobacco cultivation to work towards phasing out tobacco production in South Asia.

Conflict of Interests (COI) within Governments

Governments in India and Bangladesh have shareholdings of nearly 28% in ITC Ltd (previously known as the India Tobacco Company), and over 9% in BAT Bangladesh, respectively. Federal government support for tobacco cultivation is common in the region. Governments are also concerned about the livelihoods of a sizable population of growers and workers engaged in large-scale manual labour like in the case of bidis (tobacco flakes hand-rolled in a tendu leaf and tied with a thread). Diverse interests including that of revenue from tobacco, welfare of tobacco farmers and workers, and promotion of tobacco trade/economy coexists alongside public health concerns within governments. Efforts are needed to better understand and convince the tobacco-promoting and tobacco-benefiting agencies in the region to realign their goals toward public health and disinvest from tobacco.

 While the tobacco industry in South Asia is rather complex with a myriad of products and organisations, TTCs continue to dominate, particularly BAT. Despite the region embracing the World Health Organization’s Framework Convention on Tobacco Control, the policy framework around Article 5.3 and its implementation remain weak. There is much to gain from regional inquiries into how BAT and other TTCs operate here and influence tobacco-related public policies across the region. Such inquiries will improve our understanding of the long-term industry strategies that have similar implications across South Asia and developing countries as a whole. There is also a need to better understand how widespread domestic/regional entities are engaged in the production of myriad smokeless tobacco products as well as bidis and other non-cigarette smoking products operate and influence tobacco-related policies.

Such work should build on the pre-existing work of researchers and advocates in the region. Instead of exchanges among researchers and advocates from South Asia that often take place as part of the global tobacco control fora, we need to nurture regional fora such as; tobacco control conferences for South Asia, region-specific tobacco control journals and collaborative projects among researchers within countries in the region. Existing fora such as the South Asia Regional Consortium – Centre for Combating Tobacco (located in Sri Lanka) have potential to become an avenue for inclusive region-wide collaborative research and action.  Together we can work to put an end to tobacco industry interference in South Asia.


Aishwarya Ashok is a Research Officer in Tobacco Control at the Institute of Public Health, Bengaluru.

Upendra Bhojani is the Director at the Institute of Public Health, Bengaluru.

Shivam Kapoor is a Technical Advisor- STOP at the International Union Against Tuberculosis and Lung Diseases (The Union) South-East Asia Office, New Delhi.

Pranay Lal is a Senior Technical Advisor at The Union, South-East Asia Office, New Delhi.

The authors declare no conflict of interest. Funding: Aishwarya Ashok was supported by the Memorandum of Understanding between the Institute of Public Health, Bengaluru and the International Union Against Tuberculosis and Lung Diseases (The Union) on behalf of STOP, a global tobacco industry watchdog. Upendra Bhojani was supported through the DBT/Wellcome Trust India Alliance fellowship (IA/CPHI/17/1/503346). Shivam Kapoor and Pranay Lal thank the Bloomberg Initiative to Reduce Tobacco Use for supporting the Tobacco Control Unit at The Union South-East Asia Office, New Delhi.



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