Author: Charles Ambler
On October 21, 2021 here on Points Sarah Brady Siff drew attention to an important new book by the eminent historian of medicine, Keith Wailoo, Pushing Cool: Big Tobacco, Racial Marketing, and the Untold Story of the Menthol Cigarette. In this book, Wailoo documents in lucid prose the cynical campaign by tobacco companies to market cigarette products in minority communities at a time when growing awareness of the health repercussions of tobacco use had led to sharp declines in smoking among white middle class Americans.
That domestic corporate strategy only represented a piece, and ultimately a relatively small piece, of a global effort to expand markets and find new sources of revenue outside the United States and Western Europe—in Asia, Latin America and Africa. Yet as my colleagues, Gernot Klantschnig and Neil Carrier, and I noted in the introduction to our collection on Drugs in Africa (2014) there is relatively little scholarship on tobacco production, manufacturing, promotion and consumption in Africa—not withstanding big tobacco’s supposed big push into the continent.
Pushing Cool is one of a series of books that have explored aspects of the history of the cigarette industry in the 20th-century United States, but the stories of tobacco production, manufacturing, advertising and consumption in Asia, Latin America and Africa must generally be pieced together from isolated articles and reports. Meanwhile, during the last half century, since the American and European markets began to stagnate and decline, tobacco consumption in middle income countries especially has skyrocketed—with looming health consequences.
Consumption levels in Africa have grown less quickly, but there are signs that is changing. For several decades now, alarmist reports have repeatedly warned of an impending African “tobacco epidemic” and evidence does suggest that tobacco consumption numbers are rising significantly. According to a recent analysis in PLOS ONE that pieced together data from a wide range of sources, between 1990 and 2012 demand for cigarettes in Africa increased by 44% (59% if Egypt and South Africa are excluded), but production expanded much more rapidly, making the continent (or more accurately a few countries) a net exporter. In Sub-Saharan Africa the major cigarette manufacturing countries are South Africa, Nigeria and Kenya. Population growth explains a substantial proportion of the rise, but some country data indicates that among younger people there are more smokers and that smokers are consuming more cigarettes.
This post pulls together published material and personal recollections to get at the modern history of tobacco in Africa—with a focus on Kenya in the 1970s. Other than a scattering of articles and a book on peasant tobacco production before independence, historians have not looked at the development of the cigarette industry in Kenya (or the rest of Africa). Yet during that decade and since, the cigarette industry has had a ubiquitous presence in the country.
In his Prologue to Pushing Cool Wailoo recalls his youth in New York in the 1970s as saturated in cigarette advertising targeting Black people. When his family along with many other African American New Yorkers moved to the huge apartment complex, LeFrak City, that hugged the Long Island Expressway, he found a giant illuminated billboard (one of many around the city) that linked images of Black sophistication to menthol cigarettes. In this moment when cigarette advertising had been banned from radio and television, corporate sponsors estimated that this particular billboard alone was seen by 100,000 people each day.
During those same years, Kenya was awash in cigarette advertising. Whether in the major cities and towns or in the countryside, people could scarcely escape the reach of posters promoting various cigarette brands produced by the British American Tobacco Company (BAT), Kenya. Fifty years ago, in January of 1972 I arrived in Kenya to take up a teaching position at Mua Hills Secondary School, a new locally-established school located in Machakos District around 80 miles east of Nairobi. I would teach there for two and a half years.
The school was located about a mile from Ngelani Market (circled on the map), a small collection of shops and bars, where BAT products were easily available and where minibuses known as matatus could be caught for the 10 mile trip to Machakos Town, the district’s major administrative and commercial center. From there a regular “taxi” service to Nairobi was available.
At Ngelani Market, where I and my fellow teachers regularly gathered in the evening or on weekends for a beer or two, cigarettes and alcohol intersected—just like they do everywhere. Drinking was the occasion for smoking and bars were key outlets for cigarettes. We invariably drank at the Kwetu Bar (“Our Bar”).
As this current photo illustrates, the Kwetu Bar has changed little in the last fifty years—other than a new coat of bright green paint. The barroom was very basic. One room with a bar on the right side as you enter and tables on the left. Behind the bar were shelves of beer bottles—the basic Kenya lager-style brands of Tusker and the slightly more expensive Kilimanjaro. There were also small bottles whiskey on offer. The shelves displayed cigarettes that you could buy by the packet, but many patrons found packets too pricey and bought just one or two individual cigarettes at a time, turning a tidy profit for the bar owner.
There were three bars in Ngelani Market. To the right and behind the water tower you can catch sight of what was then (and still is) a somewhat more upscale establishment. A few doors away from the Kwetu was the third bar, one that sold only locally-produced grain beer, sold very cheaply in small metal bowls. I never developed much taste for the local pombe and, in any case, it would have been regarded as scandalous for a high school teacher to drink there among the older men who made up most of the clientele. Several small shops were also festooned with cigarette advertisements and sold them by the packet and individually. Although the upscale bar offered a television and refrigerated bottles of beer, we only went there when major events drew us to the TV set—such as the tragic 1972 Olympic Games that were followed avidly by Kenyans supporting their track and field stars.
I’m not sure why, but when I arrived at the school the Kwetu was already well established as “our bar,” notwithstanding the warm beer. I and my friends and colleagues spent many hours in its happy embrace. Business was generally slow during the week, but on the weekends and especially at the end of the month, when people received their salaries, there were many more patrons. Local primary school teachers who had to resort to local beer toward the last days of the month now came back to Kwetu and they were joined by many men who worked in Nairobi and returned to their family farms on their days off. The staff of the Kwetu were all young women, but the drinkers were almost exclusively male. It was simply not proper in a countryside bar like the Kwetu for a woman to drink—unless you happened to be a woman teacher from another country or another part of Kenya. Likewise, women were rarely seen smoking, especially in rural areas.
This brings us back to tobacco and back inside the Kwetu Bar. On the wall facing the bar there was an advertising poster for Sportsman cigarettes—Ngelani’s equivalent of the billboard near Lefrak City that Keith Wailoo recalled so vividly. This poster was the subject of
many hours of barroom analysis into the drinking and smoking practices it portrayed—an ambience altogether different from the Kwetu Bar and the other bars across Kenya where this poster was displayed. The “cocktail lounge” in the picture portrays a set of cosmopolitan couples enjoying drinks and cigarettes. Only the men consume alcohol, but both women and men enjoy a cigarette in surroundings that many bar patrons across Kenya would have found both bizarre and appealing—evoking the opportunity for upward mobility that the first decade of independence portended.
In the years following Kenyan independence in 1963 BAT advertising campaigns connected cigarette-smoking to nation-building and to the emergence of a self-consciously modern post-colonial successor class who would enjoy, according to the slogan of that era, “the fruits of Uhuru (freedom).” BAT Kenya moved decisively during this period to identify its fortunes with this class. By 1974 distribution was in the hands of 52 wholesalers, all of whom were Kenyan citizens. As BAT did elsewhere in Africa, the parent company retained a majority share in BAT Kenya, but strategically brought in the Kenya government and a number of wealthy and politically-connected Kenyans as substantial share-holders. In 1975 six of the company’s directors collectively held directorships in more than 30 Kenyan companies. BAT Kenya carefully cultivated an image of corporate good citizen, publicly supporting various charities while building powerful political ties that protected its virtual monopoly and quashed any concerns about public health.
During the 1970s increased tobacco and cigarette production drove BAT profits steadily higher, and Kenya became a net exporter of tobacco. Yet the sophisticated sheen of cigarette advertising and promotion obscured a history of systematic exploitation of small-scale tobacco farmers, many of whom had been recruited by BAT. BAT Kenya held many farmers in a form of debt peonage. The company provided seed, fertilizer and other inputs up front as loans against income from tobacco sales to the company. This left many farmers locked in poverty. They scarcely cleared any profit and faced the health hazards associated working with tobacco cultivation and processing. Local and national politicians championed this supposed contribution to national wealth, although growing other crops would often have been more profitable. In the 1980s when two local firms challenged the BAT monopoly in Kenya and offered farmers options, BAT Kenya acted aggressively to reverse a sharp drop in market share. Drawing on their political assets, BAT management succeeded in getting legislation enacted that tied tobacco farmers to the company and positioned BAT to recover its dominant position.
The steady reliance on political muscle has permitted BAT Kenya both to challenge public health initiatives and to dilute the impact of tobacco regulations that have been imposed. Documents that were first made public through a 1998 legal settlement in the USA, and are now available in the Truth Tobacco Industry Documents Archive, show that global BAT and BAT Kenya conspired in a broad assault on public health measures related to smoking. BAT systematically pushed the message that restricting the tobacco industry in Africa and the rest of the Global South represented a serious economic threat to developing economies and peasant farmers. At the same time, BAT Kenya enhanced its political connections and burnished its local do good image. When national tobacco regulation couldn’t be avoided, the company managed to draft the legislation. Kenya and most other African countries have signed on to the 2003 Framework Convention on Tobacco Control, but big tobacco’s local and global reach continues to limit and subvert public health measures aimed at tobacco.
A report on the 17th World Conference on Tobacco or Health held in Cape Town in 2018 announced that “Big tobacco turns its attention to Africa.” A combination of factors, including (in this era of neo-liberal economic policies) state hunger for tax revenue and low income levels, has limited the growth of consumption and the long-threatened smoking “epidemic” across the continent. But as the continued immiseration of tobacco farmers in Kenya and the emerging health problems of long-term Kenyan smokers make clear, there is ample evidence that big tobacco has been “paying attention” for decades.
 Kate Currie and Larry Ray, “Going up in Smoke: The Case of British American Tobacco in Kenya,” Social Science Medicine 19:11 (1984): 1131-1139.
Charles Ambler is Professor Emeritus of History at the University of Texas at El Paso where for fifteen years he was Dean of the Graduate School. He has a PhD in African history from Yale University. His research covers a wide range of topics in 19th and 20th century African history, including the histories of alcohol and drugs. He is author or co-editor of four books, notably, Liquor and Labor in Southern Africa (1992) and Drugs in Africa (2014), and many chapters and articles—most recently a contribution to The Oxford Handbook of Global Drug History edited by Paul Gootenberg (2022). In 2010 he was President of the African Studies Association (U.S.A.)