Shareholders' meeting of British American Tobacco on Wednesday was besieged by anti-smoking activists protesting the cigarette manufacturer's increasing focus on Africa and Asia. Tendai Maphosa has more for VOA in this report from London.

British American Tobacco (BAT) has been in Africa since 1902. The shareholders at the London meeting had reason to celebrate; the company made a pretax profit of more than $4.5 billion last year. But Action on Smoking and Health, a non-profit group that works to eliminate the harm caused by tobacco, used the opportunity to protest the company's growing presence in Africa.

Group spokesman Martin Dockrell says African countries are experiencing the highest increase in tobacco use among developing countries.

"The shareholders are meeting in London today to count their profits," he said. "They sold 1.1 billion cigarettes in Africa and the Middle East region last year, and we are not so happy because by our calculation that is equivalent to about 100,000 deaths."

Dockrell says since smoking is on the decline in the West due to pressure by organizations like his and the general public's awareness of the health implications of smoking, companies such as BAT have shifted their focus to Africa and Asia with aggressive advertising.

Dockrell also says tobacco is not a good crop for African and Asian farmers.

"It is harmful economically for the farmers," he said. "What they have got is a system where British American Tobacco will have a near monopoly on the product so you can only sell your product to British American Tobacco. They will give you a loan, they will supply you with the fertilizer, they will supply you with everything that you need to grow your plant and you just have to pay them back come harvest time. Increasingly African farmers are finding that the money that they get for the harvest from British American Tobacco is scarcely enough to pay the debts."

Dockrell also says land used for growing tobacco cannot be used for growing food crops and that child labor is often used.

BAT responded with a written statement saying Action on Smoking and Health's facts just do not stand up. It also dismissed the charge it is breaking into emerging markets to dodge regulation, since it has been in those markets for more than 100 years and abides by the laws and regulations of all the countries it operates in.

The company says the health risks associated with smoking are well-known and warnings about the hazard are printed on every single pack of cigarettes it makes whether the law requires it or not.