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.