As regards COVID-19 pandemic, the Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) activities have been a prominent part of the Tobacco Industry’s pandemic response. It is likely seen as a good opportunity to clean up the public image and encourage governments to work with the industry, in contravention of the World Health Organisation (WHO) Framework Convention on Tobacco Control. Previous investments in biotech and pharmaceuticals are paying off, adding to the impression that they are ‘part of the solution’.
As data emerges examining the risks of smoking, lung disease and COVID-19, the industry has seized upon any research that calls into question the growing evidence base linking tobacco products and progression of COVID-19
These activities include donations
Around the world tobacco corporations, in particular PMI and BAT, have been donating ventilators (Greece), PPE and hand sanitisers (Bangladesh, USA & Canada, Philippines, Nigeria, Kenya, Georgia) and money for pandemic relief (Brazil, Romania, Bulgaria, South Africa, India, Lebanon, Uganda).
Development of vaccines, both BAT (through its subsidiary Kentucky Bio Processing) and PMI (40% share in Medicago) are involved in COVID-19 vaccine development, using tobacco plants as viral particle ‘factories’, etc.
The industry has used the pandemic as a chance to criticize public health organisations such as the WHO, often through third parties and the WHO in turn cautioned governments against working with the tobacco industry.
The industry is also attempting to confuse the science around smoking and COVID-19 and using its confusion to promote next generation products.
Lockdowns have forced governments to decide if tobacco products should be listed as “essential items” and whether to continue their sale or not. Industry lobbying and interference has broadly been in response to;
a) Lockdown regulation
b) The effects of the pandemic on business operations
c) Opportunistic response to global uncertainty
A trend has also emerged around next generation products (NGPs) as pro-vaping groups push back against planned regulation of NGPs, capitalizing on the uncertain science around COVID-19 and vaping risks. The UK Vaping Industry Association (UKVIA) has called for vape shops to remain opened, following the examples of France, Italy and Spain. The PMI and other industry funding has been linked to much of the pro-vaping pandemic response, with particular criticism from the industry and its allies levelled at New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio and Professor Stanton Glantz of the Center for Tobacco Research Control & Education at UCSF.
A trend has also emerged around next generation products (NGPs) as pro-vaping groups push back against planned regulation of NGPs, capitalizing on the uncertain science around COVID-19 and vaping risks
In Indonesia, Tobacco control advocates have called on the President to impose tobacco product restrictions in response to the pandemic. They ask for a restriction on industry donations and an increase in tobacco tax and prices. Taxation is an area that STOP researchers at the University of Bath expect to actively monitor as the COVID-19 situation progresses.
In New Zealand (NZ) tobacco was listed as ‘essential’ and the NZ Imperial factory remains opened. In other countries with ‘essential products’ lists in force, tobacco has been effectively banned. For example, some Indian states have banned chewing and spitting tobacco, backed up by harsh jail sentences. Sale of tobacco has also been banned nationally.
Russia has imposed similar bans, halting tobacco manufacture. This prompted lobbying from the big four tobacco companies, arguing that it would lead to a growth in illicit trade. Also in Russia, the PMI has used the pandemic to push its heated tobacco product, IQOS, partnering with a delivery app to get the product to people in lockdown.
In South Africa the national government banned all tobacco sales early in the crisis, with some local restrictions being lifted in response to lobbying from industry advocates and BAT, again using the
In Pakistan the health system is already under strain from smoking-related diseases. The PMI successfully lobbied to reopen its factory, despite evidence of black-market tax avoidance and an initial restriction on tobacco sales.
The PMI also maintained cigarette production in Brazil (Santa Cruz do Sol), to avoid “compromising the business”, despite a decree banning non-essential industrial manufacture.
As data emerges examining the risks of smoking, lung disease and COVID-19, the industry has seized upon any research that calls into question the growing evidence base linking tobacco products and progression of COVID-19. Peer reviewed studies that highlight increased COVID-19 severity in smokers have been selectively ignored by the industry in favour of non-peer reviewed studies that conclude smoking is not an associated risk factor.
A non-peer reviewed study conducted by Dr. Konstantinos Farsalinos “to examine the prevalence of current e-cigarette use and current smoking among hospitalized patients with COVID-19 in China,” concludes that a below average number of smokers are being hospitalized with COVID-19 and suggests that it may be down to the role of ACE-2 receptors and a “protective effect” of nicotine. Farsalinos has previously received e-cigarette sponsorship. This paper has been widely reported as ‘Nicotine Stops COVID-19’ in the Daily Mail and elsewhere, along with similar conclusions by the Foundation for a Smoke-Free World funded, Dr. Riccardo Polosa.
The harm reduction debate continues amid the pandemic although some have raised concerns about the risk of increased COVID-19 transmission (touching mouth, blowing vapour) and severity (unknown lung damage) when using next generation products, though the science is uncertain. This uncertainty has been presented as evidence that there is no risk and Farsalinos and Polosa have both posited the anti-viral benefits of nicotine and propylene
Source of information: Stopping Tobacco Organizations and Products (STOP)