Across the Caribbean, administrations are looking to tighten regulation around tobacco consumption. Several governments have already instituted a minimum sales age requirement and most have legislative frameworks governing the sale of tobacco and derivative products. Regional disparities however have put into sharp focus that regulation means little in the absence of enforcement. Haiti remains the outlier with no explicit tobacco control legislation on the statute books, but others are falling behind too.
Only six countries across the region require graphic anti-smoking warnings on tobacco products: Antigua & Barbuda, Barbados, Guyana, Jamaica, Suriname and Trinidad and Tobago.
A regional public health sector official specialising in tobacco control explained, “Naturally in this space, lobby groups and others are funded by the big tobacco companies like British American Tobacco (“BAT”) which is the most influential tobacco company in the Caribbean. For years the company and others have used their influence to water down regulatory frameworks and curry favour with the political establishment.”
“For years the company [BAT] and others have used their influence to water down regulatory frameworks and curry favour with the political establishment.”
A regional public health sector official specialising in tobacco, the Caribbean
Perhaps unsurprising then that the Caribbean was among one of the last regions to have started implementing graphic health warnings on tobacco packaging. Nonetheless, the region is increasingly looking to tobacco control standards in North America and Europe and is now taking a more assertive approach in characterising tobacco consumption as part of the fight for better public health.
“Covid really put into sharp focus the importance of public health. As a result, governments did a lot of work around trying to understand how marketing plays into this. A lot of patients who received interventions related to cessation said that looking at the cigarette packages and understanding that it really affects your health and those around you made them decide to give the habit up,” explains the public health sector official.
That said, the region’s dominant players are deeply embedded in the region and are fiscally important. A regional tobacco distributor explained, “BAT manufactures tobacco products in Trinidad and Tobago and supplies the whole region, and Philip Morris International has a strong presence in the Dominican Republic. They exert strong political influence because they pay a lot of tax. BAT pays a little under half a billion TT dollars in tax, so they can influence government.”
“[BAT and Philip Morris] exert strong political influence because they pay a lot of tax. BAT pays a little under half a billion TT dollars in tax, so they can influence government.”
A regional tobacco distributor, the Caribbean
Sources spoke of several jurisdictions where attempts to raise import taxes on tobacco products had been shot down, purportedly due to the influence of tobacco conglomerates. “There are degrees of influence,” explains the distributor, “the taxes in Guyana are comparatively low whilst in Trinidad its 78.87% duty on tobacco plus TT$2,630 per master case, TT$5.26 per pack of 26.”
The graphic health warning model has been in the pipeline for years – cynical minds might argue that but for the influence of the conglomerates, warnings would have appeared on tobacco products years ago. “Health ministries could not get the digital graphic warnings to give out to distributors and manufacturers, and now it’s very difficult to obtain a new license or renew one: you need an import and export license,” adds the distributor.
The tobacco giants will continue to dominate the sector and against the backdrop of fiscally constrained administrations, they remain flush with the cash needed to sweeten the appeal of a controversial product.