The two faces of the tobacco industry during the COVID-19 pandemic

Mateusz Zatoński, Anna B. Gilmore, Thomas R. Hird

Since COVID-19 was declared a pandemic by the World Health Organization (WHO) on 11 March 2020, the world’s major tobacco companies have geared their CSR efforts to present themselves as allies of public health in the fight against the virus. For example, in Georgia on 23-26 March British American Tobacco (BAT) and Philip Morris International (PMI) donated money to the governmental StopCoV fund and publicly distributed face shields to journalists and emergency care specialists. In the same week, PMI made a financial donation to the Romanian Red Cross for testing equipment and mechanical ventilators, and on 31 March the Bangladesh Post reported that BAT donated Personal Protection Equipment to the country’s health-service providers. On 1 April BAT announced to global media attention that its US biotech subsidiary Kentucky BioProcessing (KBP) ‘made a significant breakthrough with our tobacco plant technology’ which could allow it to develop a vaccine against COVID-19 and called for partnerships with government agencies to test the vaccine on humans. Reynolds American Inc, now a BAT subsidiary, acquired KBP in 2014 and made similar well-publicised announcements on a treatment for the Ebola virus. However, its experimental drug ZMapp never made it out of the laboratory.

While tobacco companies ostentatiously behave like model corporate citizens in their CSR efforts around the coronavirus crisis, behind the scenes they aggressively push back against emergency public health actions to reduce coronavirus transmission. As part of national lockdowns governments have stopped the production and sale of non-essential goods in order to limit unnecessary human-to-human contact. This led to a halt in cigarette production in Russia and Argentina, and an effective ban on cigarette sales in South Africa where tobacco products were identified as non-essential, a recommendation now made by WHO. Yet, despite evidence of the link between smoking and COVID-19 and a call from WHO for smokers to quit, tobacco companies have been fighting these protective measures with media statements and appeals to policymakers claiming the restrictions would force consumers to defy the lockdown, drive illicit tobacco trade,harm tobacco farmers and shopkeepers, and damage state budgets.

In addition, an increasing number of reports from low-and-middle countries also suggest that tobacco industry labour practices could put its employees at risk of encountering COVID-19. In Nigeria BAT has been accused by its employees of ignoring protective measures by continuing to deploy its staff as normal without making provisions for social distancing. Similar complaints were reported in Zimbabwe. In Indonesia, in April two COVID-19 deaths were reported among cigarette factory workers of the PMI affiliate tobacco company HM Sampoerna (HMPS), and a further nine workers were admitted to hospital.

At the same time, the tobacco industry has also been using the impact of the pandemic to undermine pending tobacco control measures. In Indonesia, for example, HMSP has pushed for the easing of tobacco excise tax payments. In Europe, tobacco industry representatives have been using the pandemic to pressure for postponement of the ban on the sale of menthol cigarettes.

Acquiring credibility through CSR efforts has become more important than ever for the tobacco industry. The examples listed above provide a brief extract of the CSR and lobbying offensive launched by tobacco companies in the past month. While tobacco companies continue to highlight their contribution to the fight against COVID-19, the pandemic is shining a light on the appalling impacts of their products on overstretched healthcare systems and public health. With its duplicitous behaviour around COVID-19 which can only serve to further increase the mortality from both the virus and tobacco-related diseases, the tobacco industry is again demonstrating that it remains fundamentally at odds with population health. It is vital that governments heed the WHO’s call to be wary of entering partnerships with the tobacco industry in their response to the ongoing public health crisis.

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Funder statement: All authors are part of the global tobacco industry watchdog STOP (Stopping Tobacco Organizations and Products), which is funded by Bloomberg Philanthropies. (www.bloomberg.org)

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