Serious Fraud Office opens formal investigation into BAT bribery claims

Tobacco giant says it is cooperating with UK authorities over allegations of ‘misconduct’.

The UK’s Serious Fraud Office has started a formal investigation into British American Tobacco over corruption allegations in Africa.

The SFO said it was “investigating suspicions of corruption in the conduct of business by BAT, its subsidiaries and associated persons”.

The UK tobacco firm said in a separate statement that it was investigating allegations of “misconduct” in its business through external legal advisers and that it had been cooperating with the SFO before the formal investigation was opened. The group said it would cooperate with the SFO.

BAT would not confirm whether the investigation concerned allegations made by BAT whistleblower Paul Hopkins, who worked for the firm in Kenya for 13 years. He has claimed he paid bribes on the company’s behalf to the Kenya Revenue Authority for access to information that BAT could use against its Kenyan competitor, Mastermind. Hopkins also claimed BAT Kenya paid bribes to government officials in Burundi, Rwanda and the Comoros Islands to undermine tobacco control regulations.

BAT hired law firm Linklaters in February 2016 to conduct a “full investigation” into the claims made by Hopkins. BAT later dropped Linklaters and appointed Slaughter and May as sole adviser on the case.

BAT and other multinational tobacco companies have threatened governments in at least eight countries in Africa in an attempt to block anti-smoking laws, a Guardian investigation found last month.

The SFO investigation is another blow to the company, after the US health watchdog, the Food and Drug Administration, announced tighter regulations on the tobacco industry, which hit shares in tobacco firms.

BAT has recently completed its acquisition of US firm Reynolds, which will create the world’s biggest tobacco company.

The BAT chief executive, Nicandro Durante, told the Financial Times in March that the firm would act in a very strong way” if wrongdoing was found to have taken place. He said: “We are in 200 countries, so I cannot give a 100% guarantee that everything’s going to go by the book.’