Tobacco industry ‘preyed on’ governments during COVID-19 — report

4 November 2021

Jenny Lei Ravelo Source: devex

The COVID-19 pandemic has created opportunities for the tobacco industry to promote itself and its products in a number of countries, according to a new report that evaluated how well countries fend off interference from the tobacco industry based on civil society reports from 80 countries.

“Although smoking is identified as a risk factor for more severe symptoms of COVID-19, for the tobacco industry, it was business as usual,” said Dr. Mary Assunta, lead author of the Global Tobacco Industry Interference Index 2021, during a press briefing Tuesday.

During the pandemic, she said the industry stepped up its “charities” to the health sector at a time when countries are suffering from huge economic losses and there was an urgent need for resources.

In Indonesia, Sampoerna, a tobacco company owned by Philip Morris International, gave grocery packages and disinfectants to the East Java provincial government. In Pakistan, PMI contributed over 20 million Pakistani rupees, or over $260,000, to the government’s COVID-19 Pandemic Relief Fund. In Zambia, Japan Tobacco International contributed $300,000 to the government’s COVID-19 relief efforts.

 “It’s been a rough year. … But this money is blood money. And it should not just be accepted.”

— Anca Toma, director, Smoke Free Partnership

In these countries and eight others that received charity from the industry, the report found the tobacco industry received tax benefits in the form of reduced taxes, no tax increases, or tax exemptions.

“It’s extremely sad in the case of taxation, because this is not on the top of government agendas when we know for a fact that governments could secure funding for COVID response and recovery [through taxation], in addition to taxation being the most effective way to reduce tobacco use,” said Dr. Ulysses Dorotheo, executive director of the Southeast Asia Tobacco Control Alliance.

In Europe, several countries also accepted donations from the industry during the pandemic, including ventilators and masks, said Anca Toma, director of the Smoke Free Partnership.

“It’s been a rough year. … But this money is blood money. And it should not just be accepted, and it should not allow the tobacco industry to pretend it’s a good citizen, because it’s really not,” she said.

Toma also cited PMI’s recent acquisition of a British pharmaceutical company that specializes in developing medicines for respiratory diseases, as well as the tobacco industry’s efforts to invest in vaccine development as “another example of the shamelessness with which these big tobacco multinationals are behaving.”

Meanwhile, in countries such as Bangladesh, Jordan, Sudan, and Malaysia, cigarettes were deemed “essential items” that can be sold during lockdowns. In Iraq, the trade ministry distributed cigarettes along with its free food ration program to poor families. In Uruguay, the government revised a ban on electronic smoking devices that has been in place since 2009 to allow the marketing of heated tobacco products.

In Kenya, cigarettes were also initially listed as an “essential” item in 2020, and were only dropped in March 2021. In South Africa, the tobacco industry challenged the government after it banned cigarette sales during lockdown.

“When you look at those two cases in the region, you can see how vulnerable we are in Africa,” said Leonce Sessou, executive secretary of the African Tobacco Control Alliance.

Her Royal Highness Princess Dina Mired of Jordan, a tobacco control advocate, said tobacco companies preyed on governments during the pandemic.

“They prey [on] these very difficult times, when people are busy with other more immediate things [such as] putting food on the table, finding jobs, etc. And, unfortunately, they have a field day in our countries,” she said.

Assunta said however that there are low- and middle-income countries, such as Uganda, that have done well in preventing tobacco industry interference over the past year, which shows it isn’t “expensive” for countries to protect themselves from tobacco industry interference.

Given that public health is currently on top of government agendas worldwide, “now really is the time to … step up tobacco control,” she said.