Many governments found themselves between a rock and a hard place during the COVID-19 pandemic when offered donations of goods and funds by the tobacco industry. However, opening the door to the tobacco industry’s charity also paves the way to a relationship that the industry will exploit to further its business. A collaborative relationship with the industry serves to undermine tobacco control.
The 2020 Global Tobacco Industry Interference Index (the Index) has found that the tobacco industry used corporate social responsibility (CSR) initiatives across many countries as a tactic to access senior government officials to its own end. This is precisely why the World Health Organization (WHO) Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (FCTC), requires Parties to denormalise the tobacco industry CSR activities under Article 5.3 guidelines.
No government has been spared from attempts by the tobacco industry at policy interference. However, while governments pinpointed tobacco industry interference as the most serious barrier to their tobacco control measures, many have been found wanting in using the powerful tool at their disposal – FCTC Article 5.3 – to protect their policies.
The 2020 Index, which ranks 57 governments in their efforts to implement Article 5.3, found the industry has stepped up its meddling while the governments are moving at a glacial pace to protect their health policies.
Parties to the FCTC submit official reports every two years on how they are implementing the treaty. The Index is a civil society report on governments’ efforts in applying Article 5.3 which pinpoints loop holes the industry exploits.
Governments which experienced the worst levels of interference are Japan, Indonesia and Zambia. It is not surprising that those countries facing high levels of interference also lag behind in their tobacco control measures.
In contrast, Brunei Darussalam, France and Uganda recorded the lowest level of interference. Countries with stringent tobacco control legislation have also adopted measures under Article 5.3 guidelines to facilitate transparency, avoid conflict of interest situations and provide guidance for interaction with the industry, thereby effectively tackling industry interference.
A key finding of the Index is lack of transparency, a problem across many countries. Few countries have procedures to record interactions with the tobacco industry or make their interactions public, a requirement in Article 5.3 guidelines. These guidelines state that interactions with the tobacco industry should only be when strictly necessary for regulation. This effectively rules out any collaboration or partnership with the tobacco industry.
Yet in 2019, seven countries including Colombia, Ecuador, Egypt and Ethiopia entered into a memorandum of understanding (MOU) with the tobacco industry to tackle illicit trade in their respective countries. Civil society only became aware of the MOU when it was made public at the signing ceremony.
The Index found the tobacco industry sought to undermine the health department’s leadership role in tobacco control by shifting decision-making to the non-health sector to obtain industry-friendly outcomes. In several countries, tobacco control measures were defeated or diluted when the industry had a seat at the policymaking table or exerted influence through non-health representatives.
The Index shows that Philip Morris International (PMI) lobbied for the promotion and sale of its heated tobacco product (HTP), IQOS, in at least 12 countries which resulted in the government reversing a previous ban on HTPs, allowing their sale or granting a lower level of taxation for HTPs compared to cigarettes after PMI threatened to withdraw operations in some countries.
According to the Index, the lower the score, the lower the level of interference, which augurs well for the country. The Index covers countries from Africa, the Eastern Mediterranean region, Latin and North America, Europe, South and Southeast Asia and the Western Pacific region. The countries are ranked according to total scores provided by civil society groups, which prepared their respective country indices.
The Index tracks improvements in and deterioration of countries’ efforts in the implementation of Article 5.3. The 2020 Index, the second report in the series, provides a comparison for the 33 countries assessed in both the first and second edition of the Index. Pakistan, South Africa, Sri Lanka, Egypt and Mexico showed improvement in halting industry influence to some extent and improved their overall scores.
On the other hand, Brazil, Turkey, Indonesia, Ukraine and Kenya have deteriorated in their scores. Brazil’s government allowed the industry to participate in policy development, while Turkey had a conflict of interest situation when the director of BAT Turkey was appointed as Deputy Minister of Commerce.
Vigilance in monitoring implementation of Article 5.3 to all-of-government is illustrated in the U.K.’s performance which slipped three points, from first to fourth position. This was due to opening the door to industry participation in policy development, giving benefits to the industry and creating a conflict of interest. Civil society groups identified a senior minister of the Cabinet in 2019 who had a past involvement with the tobacco industry.
While the tobacco industry does not take a holiday from interfering, the good news is both high and low income countries have demonstrated resistance to the industry’s influence. This report shows it is political will that protects tobacco control and public health.
The full report is available here.
Dr Mary Assunta is the Head of Global Research & Advocacy at the Global Center for Good Governance in Tobacco Control, a partner of STOP (Stopping Tobacco Organizations and Products).
The Index is funded by, and STOP is supported by, Bloomberg Philanthropies.