Health pays the price when Big Tobacco woos policymakers
Nov 17, 2020
Covid-19 reminds us of the scourge of tobacco: smoking or being a former smoker increases the risk of severe illness from the coronavirus
As governments around the world are focused on fighting Covid-19 tobacco companies are encouraging policy makers to let down their guard against the main driver of another deadly epidemic: tobacco use.
Covid-19 is a reminder of how important it is to fight the scourge of tobacco: smoking or being a former smoker increases the risk of severe illness from the coronavirus, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Governments know what policies encourage people to stop smoking, but tobacco industry interference is the most important barrier to these policies being implemented.
Put simply: protecting against tobacco industry meddling in government policy, protects health. The latest Global Tobacco Industry Interference Index, a report card that assesses 57 governments’ efforts to halt tobacco industry interference in policy decisions, shows that governments have a lot of work still to do.
According to the Index, big tobacco stepped up its meddling during 2019 and accelerated these efforts in 2020, even as a respiratory health crisis swept the globe. Governments are vulnerable to the industry in a number of ways, especially if they don’t have strong protections against interference already in place.
This year, governments have been accepting donations of personal protective equipment, medical supplies and money from tobacco companies. The companies, whose products kill eight million people every year, then used those donations to promote themselves as helping efforts to combat the deadly virus, even though their products increase risk.
But self-promotion is just the beginning; tobacco company donations also turned into requests for favours. In Bangladesh, British American Tobacco’s subsidiary donated PPE to hospitals during the pandemic.
Shortly afterwards, the country’s Ministry of Industries urged government agencies to work with BAT and Japan Tobacco International during the shutdown. The Index shows that Bangladesh is working to improve protection for health policy, but acceptance of this type of corporate social responsibility outreach is one of the ways the tobacco industry retains influence.
Similarly, Kenya ranks ninth overall in the Index for its efforts to protect policy in 2019, but a lack of transparency on interactions with the industry remains an area of concern. Authorities in Kenya listed tobacco products as “essential” during the pandemic.
The Jordanian government, which ranks fifth worst overall but had been making progress in 2019, tasked city buses to deliver cigarettes along with essential items like bread. Even in countries like South Africa, India and Mexico where governments banned products during the pandemic, the industry fought back.
It is a cynical twist: companies that sell deadly products that impose a crushing economic burden on governments are portraying themselves as partners to public authorities desperate for protective equipment and other supplies. Governments can, however, inoculate themselves against such influence.
Article 5.3 of the World Health Organization (WHO) Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (FCTC) is a tool to stop industry from meddling in policies created to protect people’s health. Countries like the Netherlands, Thailand, Brunei Darussalam, and Uruguay are rejecting industry proposals, preventing industry from delaying tobacco control measures and reducing industry opportunities to influence policy.
France, Ethiopia and Peru have a procedure to record interactions between government and industry, which helps prevent partnerships that can potentially create conflicts of interest. To be effective, measures must be implemented across the whole of government. Tobacco companies have become expert at circumventing health ministries by lobbying other branches of government and civil service.
In Colombia, Philip Morris International signed an agreement with the National Police and the National Federation of Departments to provide training to enforcement officers tasked with combating illicit trade in cigarettes. This is a classic tactic that curries favour with authorities to divert attention from the tobacco industry’s own involvement in illicit trade.
If the FCTC were implemented across all government agencies in Colombia, this opportunity for influencing government policies would be prohibited. Colombia is not alone. The new Index suggests that all governments need to do more. Some governments, like the UK, have slipped down the rankings since the last Index.
In the UK, for example, the industry was allowed to take part in two government consultations in 2019 and several government ministers appointed in 2019 have tobacco industry links.
Governments are more vulnerable than ever to industry influence during the pandemic and tobacco companies have taken advantage of the moment.
Governments have the tools to protect health and health policy, and are obliged to use them. They must stand firm, resist industry interference, hold tobacco companies liable for damage and protect their citizens from companies that pretend to be bearing gifts but are actually only causing harm
Dr Mary Assunta is head of global research and advocacy at the Global Center for Good Governance in Tobacco Control (GGTC) and a Partner in STOP.