Stella Aguinaga Bialous & Becky Freeman
Article 5.3 implementation guidelines of the WHO Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (FCTC) remind all parties to protect public health against the “commercial or other vested interests” of the tobacco industry. The guidelines recognize a “fundamental and irreconcilable” conflict of interest between tobacco industry ambitions and public health policy interests. Compliance with and implementation of Article 5.3 have been, at best, partial, with many parties yet to take steps to fully protect against tobacco industry interference in the policymaking process. One of the well documented ways in which the tobacco industry insinuates itself into the public policymaking sphere is through Corporate Social Responsibility [CSR] (or Sustainability) efforts. These voluntary efforts are widely recognized as just public relations and deemed to be yet another form of tobacco marketing. Many countries struggle to regulate CSR activities and the industry takes full advantage of this legislative loophole.
It is entirely predictable that during the COVID19 pandemic the tobacco industry’s “largesse” would rear its head once again. News reports, collated by public health stakeholders engaged in monitoring the tobacco industry during the pandemic show a wide range of industry CSR activities. In addition to the donation of equipment to health care facilities, professionals, government officials, and charitable organizations, there have been reports of tobacco companies pursuing a vaccine and supporting social distancing and handwashing. At the same time, the industry is lobbying against the exclusion of its products from the list of essential consumer goods available during the pandemic, as has happened in South Africa. In Sri Lanka and Kenya, health groups are urging the government to follow the WHO in declaring tobacco as non-essential product.
The extent to which the tobacco industry will use the pandemic to continue to market its electronic and heated tobacco products must to be monitored, but February 2020 communications to investor from both BAT and PMI made it clear that expanding the market for combustible products and maintaining cigarette affordability will remain the priority post-pandemic. The industry’s “duplicity” of supporting efforts to address a respiratory virus pandemic while promoting a product responsible for countless numbers of respiratory diseases and deaths has not gone unnoticed.
As history has clearly indicated, the industry continues to deploy the moves from its classic playbook. While refusing these donations is difficult in most times, it would be impossible now when the pandemic is accompanied by devastating economic losses and there is a serious shortage of medical supplies. Nonetheless, once the pandemic calms, government functions that may have been suspended, including full implementation of the FCTC, will resume. Parties will need to assess if firewalls, as thin as they might have been, between tobacco industry and public health interests were breached – and to put in place urgent repairs. Parties will need to ensure that appreciation for tobacco industry donations is not translated into marketing and access to the policymaking process. Weakening of legislative and policy measures that support implementation of the treaty will also weaken post-pandemic recovery. Proven policy measures, including the creation of 100% smoke free environments, bans on all tobacco marketing, strict regulatory frameworks, and tobacco tax increases, must continue to be implemented and strengthened. Limiting interactions with the industry to those strictly necessary for regulation, ensuring transparency of any interaction, and refusing industry partnerships will need to be on top of the tobacco control agenda again. Parties need to ensure that gratitude for the lives saved now do not interfere with the saving of millions of lives that will be lost without full implementation of the treaty, including implementation of Article 5.3.
Stella Aguinaga Bialous is an Associate Professor, Social Behavioral Sciences with the Center for Tobacco Control Research and Education at the University of California San Francisco, USA. Becky Freeman is a Senior Lecturer at the School of Public Health and Prevention Research Collaboration, Charles Perkins Centre at the University of Sydney. The authors declare no conflict of interest.