In July 2023, Japan Tobacco International (JTI) announced a new deal to manufacture its cigarette brands in Azerbaijan for export into Georgia. With this new agreement, JTI’s brands will be manufactured by Azerbaijani tobacco company Tabaterra. While seemingly a minor announcement about business operations, this apparent expansion in production raises two serious concerns about JTI.
First, expanding its presence in the Georgian market threatens recent progress in reducing tobacco use in a country that has struggled with one of the highest smoking rates in Europe. Second, it strongly contradicts JTI’s claims that it supports the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).
JTI’s apparent expansion is poised to harm progress in reducing tobacco use in Georgia
In 2020, it was estimated that about 29% of Georgians, and around 55% of men in Georgia, used tobacco. The consequences have been severe: Smoking is estimated to cause more than 11,000 annual deaths in Georgia. While Georgia’s tobacco use rates are among the highest in the World Health Organization (WHO) European region, they’ve been steadily declining since 2000, a downward trend that is projected to continue through 2025.
Part of this continued decline is attributable to amendments adopted in 2017 to the country’s tobacco control law, with the first measures going into effect in 2018. An analysis of the measures’ effects showed a decrease in the rate of new asthma cases and heart attacks.
This progress is particularly meaningful and hard-won as Georgia experiences high levels of tobacco industry interference. In the 2021 Global Tobacco Industry Interference Index, Georgia ranked in the top five countries for highest levels of industry interference. When the industry interferes in policy, measures that can save lives can be delayed or dropped. For example, plain package legislation was postponed from January 2018 to January 2023 after industry interference.
The goal of JTI’s new agreement with Tabaterra, which also produces cigarettes for British American Tobacco and Imperial Brands, appears to be to get cigarettes to Georgians faster. Of the new deal, the General Director of JTI for Belarus and the Caucasus region said, “… We will make global brands, such as Sobranie, Winston, and Camel, available for consumers in Georgia in a shorter period of time by producing them in Azerbaijan.” He also said, ” The export agreement with Tabaterra is an important milestone for JTI in terms of expanding our presence in the Georgian market.” With greater cigarette availability, cutting back, quitting and staying quit can be more difficult.
Its actions show JTI’s true commitment is to profits—at the expense of health, equity and the environment.
JTI is hindering—not helping—the SDGs
In addition to threatening public health in Georgia, JTI’s new deal erodes its supposed commitment to the SDGs. In its 2021 Integrated Report, the tobacco giant identified nine SDGs to which its business contributes. In reality, much of JTI’s business, including this apparent expansion of cigarette manufacturing capabilities in the region, actively works against at least five of the SDGs JTI claims its business can support.
The first and most obvious is Goal 3: Good Health and Well-Being. Cigarette production only drives the tobacco epidemic, which claims 8 million lives every single year. Using tobacco is linked to various cancers, heart disease, chronic respiratory conditions and more. People who don’t use tobacco but who are exposed to secondhand smoke also suffer serious health consequences, including coronary heart disease, lung cancer and increased risk of sudden infant death syndrome in babies. In addition, tobacco use and related medical spending causes financial strain on individuals and governments, as well as emotional strain, harming well-being from almost every angle.
Another is Goal 10: Reduced Inequalities. Tobacco use is anti-equity, and the problems start at the first step in the supply chain. Some smallholder farmers growing the tobacco used in Big Tobacco’s cigarettes become trapped in a cycle of poverty. Tobacco companies also target people who, due to racism and other forms of discrimination, already face barriers to getting what they need to thrive, such as access to health care. When tobacco companies hook and encourage continued tobacco use among people who already face inequity, they are harming the health of those who may already have difficulty getting medical care. Spending on medical care and even the inability to work due to tobacco-related illness further widens these disparities.
And finally, increasing its market presence in the region is an affront to Goals 12 (Responsible Consumption and Production), 13 (Climate Action) and 15 (Life on Land). Tobacco growing, manufacturing and use all cause environmental devastation. According to a 2015 WHO bulletin, one year of manufacturing alone produced more than 2,000,000 tonnes of solid waste; 300,000 tonnes of non-recyclable nicotine-containing waste and 200,000 tonnes of chemical waste. The environmental harm doesn’t end once cigarettes have been smoked. Cigarette butts are the most littered item on earth. The plastic filters found in almost all commercial cigarettes are contributing to the growing plastic pollution crisis.
JTI likely publicizes its commitment to these SDGs to remain appealing to investors and to convince policymakers and the public that it is a socially responsible company. Its actions, including this regional expansion in cigarette manufacturing, show JTI’s true commitment is to profits— at the expense of health, equity and the environment. In fact, JTI’s intensions are stated clearly in a presentation it made to investors in May 2023, which included a slide titled, “Combustibles: Maximize Profitable Growth.”
Small developments can have big consequences
It is important to look beneath the surface at the true consequences of tobacco companies’ business activities. An apparent expansion in cigarette production and a more efficient supply chain stand to harm public health, exacerbate inequities and further degrade the environment.