British American Tobacco Bangladesh has been running a afforestation programmme and a safe drinking water project in the tobacco growing areas of Bangladesh for decades. The Bonayan reforestation project is Bangladesh’s largest private sector afforestation programme and has been in existence for over 40 years, during which BAT Bangladesh claims to have distributed over 115 million seedlings of various tree species.[1a; 1b; 2] The program also sponsors so-called ‘afforestation committees’ in 18 districts to help increase engagement in local communities.
In addition, BAT Bangladesh launched the Probaho Safe Drinking Water Project in 2009. This has installed water treatment plants in arsenic-prone districts in an effort to reduce the lack of clean water for residents. As of 2020, it has also provided clean drinking water for the first time to people in the hilly areas of Bandarban district, where the Matamuhuri River flows.
On the other hand, over 45,000 hectares of land in Bangladesh are used for tobacco cultivation, and tobacco farmers are encouraged to expand cultivation through incentives such as loans and buy-back guarantees from tobacco companies. Firewood for curing tobacco is sourced from community forests. This leads to widespread deforestation. An estimated 170,000 trees per season are cut for this purpose in Bandarban and Cox’s Bazar districts alone. In Kushtia district, deforestation has resulted in local forests being no longer able to provide the firewood needed for tobacco curing. Tobacco cultivation also leads to water pollution through the use of chemical pesticides and fertilisers, as well as soil contamination and nutrient leaching. A 2020 study by Hussain et al. found that in Bangladesh, water and soil pollution was higher in water bodies adjacent to tobacco cultivation areas than in other water bodies.
Through Bonayan and Probaho, BAT has established and maintained on-the-ground contacts with environmental and government agencies, as well as many local governments, mayors, etc. Through its programmes, BATB has received great recognition and many awards for its work: most recently, these included an award as one of the Top Green Companies in Asia in the ‘Asia Corporate Excellence and Sustainability Awards’ 2021, the Social Caring Pledge (SCP) 2021 as the first company in the country for exceptional performance in promoting the six core principles of the UN Global Compact, and the Bangladesh Innovation Award for SDG Inclusion 2018 and 2021[11a; 11b]. Several times, the company has also been awarded by the Prime Minister of Bangladesh and is referred to as a partner of the government in achieving the SDGs.
A look at the Tobacco Industry Interference Index Asia (2021) shows that tobacco industry interference in Bangladesh is generally high. The tobacco industry continues to receive preferential treatment and policies allow it to exert influence. For example, during the pandemic lockdown, the tobacco industry in Bangladesh received a special permit from the Ministry of Industry (MOI) that classified tobacco products as essential commodities – although the Ministry of Health requested that this permit be withdrawn.
Tobacco companies receiving awards means that there is a high level of unnecessary interaction, such as with the President’s Award for Industrial Development to BATB or with the award ceremonies mentioned above.
While in Bangladesh, transparency around influence is poor and many conflicts of interest exist, progress in addressing tobacco industry interference has diminished. An education programme or communication plan on FCTC Article 5.3 does not exist in Bangladesh.