BAT violating tobacco control law

11 June 2024

By Sajjad Hossain, The Daily Star

The tobacco company running promotional campaigns in top restaurants, hotels

British American Tobacco Company (BAT) has been promoting sales of cigarette, a controlled product, in upscale restaurants and hotels in big cities in a clear violation of tobacco control laws, The Daily Star has found.

The largest tobacco company in Bangladesh has also been secretly partnering with luxury hotels and restaurants in major cities like Dhaka, Chattogram and Cox’s Bazar, supplying them with cigarettes and promotional materials.

In some cases, BAT, as part of the deal,hosts events at some of these restaurants, which leads to increased food and cigarette sales in those eateries. BAT also has financial arrangements with the restaurant owners to display the tobacco company’s promotional materials, six restaurant owners in Dhaka and Chattogram told The Daily Star.

The Daily Star is not naming the restaurants and hotels as they all spoke on condition of anonymity.

The findings by this newspaper are consistent with a study report by an NGO, Voice Bangladesh, published last year.

Based on a survey of 102 restaurants in Dhaka, Chattogram and Cox’s Bazar, the study found BAT invested in these restaurants to sell its products and display its promotional materials.

The study also found all these restaurants received one-time cash benefits from BAT for displaying their promotional materials. The payment, made by cheque or transfer intended to cover rent or utility bill, ranged from Tk 120,000 to Tk 5,400,000.

The Daily Star shared its findings with BAT via repeated phone calls, multiple text messages and emails over the last 10 days, but the company did not make any comment.

Separate smoking zones in hotels and multi-room restaurants are legal, but Smoking and Tobacco Products Usage (Control) Act, 2005 (amended in 2013), prohibits advertising tobacco products in any manner, including through leaflets, posters, billboards and signboards.

The Act also bans offering free samples or low-cost proposals to entice buyers.

Violation of the rules carries three months’ jail sentence or Tk 1 lakh in fine or both for first-time offenders. Repeat offenders will face twice as much the punishment for breaking the rules each subsequent occasion.

Despite the restrictions and provisions for punishment, BAT has managed to infiltrate many popular restaurants and hotels in different parts of the country.

Over the last two weeks, The Daily Star visited 18 restaurants in the capital’s Dhanmondi, Banani and Gulshan and found 15 have separate designated smoking zones, where only BAT brands are available.

BAT products, including cigarettes and lighters with BAT logo painted in them, were found in open display in three restaurants—two in Gulshan and one in Dhanmondi.

In the smoking zones of these three restaurants, smoking areas featured eye-catching displays and illuminated advertisements. Each table had a display case, and large showcases advertised cigarettes.

One Gulshan restaurant even included a “Tobacco” section in its menu, listing four BAT cigarette brands priced at Tk 325, although most retail shops charge higher.

“We only sell BAT products. And we don’t sell single sticks, you have to buy the whole pack,” said an employee, indicating a deliberate marketing strategy to boost sales.

One restaurant owner, who requested anonymity, said BAT’s promotional activities are financially gainful for him.

“It’s a good deal because almost every month, BAT arranges a function at my restaurant. I make good profit from the increased sales on those days,” he said.

He said BAT officials regularly pay visits to ensure their promotional materials are prominently displayed, something Voice Bangladesh also found in its study last year.

A Gulshan coffee shop manager admitted having a “very confidential” financial agreement with BAT, allowing them to run promotional campaigns at the café since 2021.

According to the restaurant owners in Gulshan and Banani, BAT has agreements with at least 20 restaurants for promotional purposes in these two upscale areas.

Two restaurant owners in Chattogram said they had a verbal agreement with BAT to display its brands and that they received some money every month as part of the deal. However, they are not receiving any money from BAT for about a year now.

At least two five-star hotels in Cox’s Bazar also have BAT products display areas in their lobbies.

An official of one of these two hotels acknowledged that BAT provides them with cigarettes and promotional materials, but said he is not aware of any financial agreement with the tobacco company.

An official of the other five-star hotel did not respond to our calls and text messages.

Health Minister Samanta Lal Sen did not respond to our questions sent to Shahdat Hossain, senior information officer of the health ministry, on WhatsApp.

State Minister for Health Rokeya Sultana also declined to comment, saying she does not know anything about the matter.