Tob Control 2014;23:3-6 doi:10.1136/tobaccocontrol-2013-05143
Mauritius: Fight against tobacco manufacturing plant
After ratifying the WHO Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (FCTC) in 2004, Mauritius put in place effective tobacco control measures, supported by strong political will. Legislation was adopted to ban tobacco advertising, promotion and sponsorship and smoking in most public places, and the first pictorial health warnings on cigarette packs in Africa were introduced in 2008. More than 70% of the retail price of the most popular tobacco products is tax, although they are still easily affordable to the average-income smoker.
Mauritius introduced the first graphic health warnings in Africa in 2008. Will its status as a tobacco control leader be diminished by a new tobacco manufacturing plant?
In 2007, British American Tobacco closed its manufacturing plant on the island. In 2012 it stopped the purchase of tobacco leaves from tobacco growers in Mauritius, bringing an abrupt end to domestic cultivation. Data compiled from the customs office indicate that the import of cigarettes is going down.
However, the shadow of big tobacco is looming again in the Mauritian landscape. An undisclosed international tobacco company based in Dubai is seeking authorisation from the government to set up a tobacco manufacturing plant for products to be exported to other African countries. Although officially the company will be manufacturing cigarettes, information indicates that the company will also be producing chewing tobacco. According to the existing law in Mauritius, the company will be allowed to sell up to 50% of its production on the local market.
The proposal has been strongly opposed by VISA, a Mauritian tobacco control NGO, on the basis that it violates the WHO FCTC as well as the United Nations Political Declaration of the High-Level Meeting of the General Assembly on the Prevention and Control of Non-Communicable Diseases. The proposed manufacturing plant will support the tobacco industry to increase consumption in Africa, leading to further tobacco-related suffering and deaths in a continent already faced with the double burden of communicable and non-communicable diseases. VISA and other organisations argue that Mauritius has a moral responsibility not to allow the tobacco industry to use its territory to manufacture a deadly product which will harm the populations of other African countries.
According to the World Customs Organization, the free zones in the United Arab Emirates, including Dubai, are known sources of considerable counterfeit cigarette production which targets predominantly West African markets. There is concern that the Dubai-based tobacco manufacturing plant may use the free port of Mauritius to engage in illicit trade of tobacco products.
Action led by VISA to dissuade the government of Mauritius from authorising the tobacco plant, including official protests to the prime minister and other key government ministers, and advocacy by international organisations such as the Framework Convention Alliance and African Tobacco Control Alliance appears to have fallen on deaf ears. The official response received from the Ministry of Agro-Industry is that the “cigarette is a legal product worldwide and smokers will purchase the product whether manufactured in Mauritius or in any other country”. This stance ignores the health, social, economic and environmental consequences of tobacco use and the normalising effect of welcoming a manufacturing plant, thereby signalling societal approval of its products.
Mauritius is regarded as a model and leader in tobacco control by the WHO and other international bodies. Establishing a tobacco manufacturing plant risks tarnishing this image, as it indicates a lack of regional and global responsibility in the face of the harms caused by the tobacco epidemic.
The issue is a reminder that the tobacco industry is always looking for opportunities to expand its commercial activities, even (and perhaps especially) in countries that have put in place strong tobacco control measures. The national and international response by non-government organisations and other agencies shows that civil society remains a major force to counteract the power and influence of the tobacco industry.