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How the tobacco industry seized on the pandemic as an opportunity

To mark World Health Day, Croakey’s Melissa Sweet digs into a report investigating tobacco industry efforts to undermine public health regulations globally.

Many of the report’s themes are relevant for other industries that harm health; its section on the “revolving door” between industry and government/policy makers brings to mind the fossil fuels sector.


Melissa Sweet writes:

In the first half of last year, as the world was grappling with an unfolding pandemic, the tobacco industry saw an opportunity – and seized it.

By making donations to charities and governments to aid the pandemic response, tobacco companies gained influence and access to decision makers, as well as opportunities for rehabilitating the industry’s poor reputation.

The extent of the industry’s corporate social responsibility (CSR) activities during the early months of the pandemic are outlined in a report from the Global Center for Good Governance in Tobacco Control (GGTC), based in Thailand.

The report says:

The tobacco industry exploited the pandemic to engage with governments to an extraordinary level, with government receipt and endorsement of charitable contributions (CSR activities) being the industry’s key avenue to access senior officials, including several instances of the industry involving the Prime Minister’s Office in several countries.

The industry capitalized on the vulnerability of governments who faced a shortage of resources during the COVID-19 pandemic. Even in countries where health departments/ministries have a policy to not accept donations from the tobacco industry, this was put aside during the pandemic.”

The report, titled ‘Global Tobacco Industry Interference Index 2019’, authored by Dr Mary Assunta, and released last November, says Philip Morris International (PMI) reported donating over US $32 million across 62 markets in the first few months of the pandemic.

In the countries surveyed, PMI’s CSR activities included distribution of ventilators to Czech Republic, and hand sanitisers to Brazil, Indonesia, the Netherlands and the Philippines.

In India, Indian Tobacco Company Limited (ITC) partnered with the Government of Kerala, through its brand, Savlon, on a state-wide handwashing campaign “Break the Chain”.

The report includes an appendix (see it extracted here), providing a sample of tobacco industry-related CSR activities during the first months of the pandemic.

For example, on 31 March, BAT Bangladesh provided personal protective equipment (PPE) to public hospitals in Bangladesh. Three days later, the Ministry of Industries wrote to various agencies to cooperate with the operation of BAT and JTI during the COVID-19 shutdown.

In April, BAT Kenya contributed 300,000 liters of sanitiser to various government agencies. Athough Kenyan government officials are not allowed to endorse or accept donations from the tobacco industry, they accepted industry donation to the COVID-19 Emergency Response Fund established by the President.

Meanwhile, Kenya listed tobacco as among essential products during the pandemic, which meant providers had protection and special permits to transport during the lockdown.

In Romania, PMI gave US $1 million to the Red Cross, while in the Ukraine, Philip Morris gave US $10 million to the  Health for All Charitable Foundation.

The report says such activities enabled the industry to frame itself as being “part of the solution”, a classic tactic to get close to governments and enable it to interfere with, derail and undermine health policies aimed at reducing tobacco use.

Charitable acts?

While publicising its charitable acts to resuscitate its image as being part of the solution, the industry was simultaneously lobbying governments not to impose restrictions on its business and even to declare tobacco as an “essential” item during the pandemic.

In Jordan, three days into the complete lockdown, the government instructed city buses to deliver bread and other essentials directly to neighborhoods, and the Minister of Labor announced the government would initiate distribution of cigarettes to smokers as well. Jordan documented a more-than 50 percent increase in consumption of tobacco during the lockdown.

The report examines how countries are implementing the World Health Organization (WHO) Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (FCTC), ratified by 180 countries and the European Union. Article 5.3 of the WHO FCTC specifically empowers governments to protect their public health policies from vested commercial interests.

Extract from report

As in the first Global Tobacco Industry Interference Index report, this second report shows that lack of transparency, conflict of interest and the bestowment of incentives to the tobacco industry remain big problems in many countries.

Since the first report, more countries deteriorated (15) compared to those that made improvements (11). While progress has been made, the report says “it has been moving at a glacial pace relative to the aggressive interference from the industry”.

The report says non-health agencies remain particularly vulnerable to industry interference, and political will is needed to effectively implement Article 5.3.

It says the tobacco industry sought to undermine the health ministry/department’s leadership role in tobacco control by shifting decision-making to the non-health sector to obtain industry-friendly outcomes.

In several countries, stringent tobacco control measures were defeated or diluted where the industry had a seat at the policymaking table or exerted influence through non-health representatives to delay or oppose tobacco control.

Whether a country was high-, middle- or low-income had little effect on how well or poorly it fared.

In 2019, the tobacco industry continued to gain access to high level officials through its CSR activities, focusing on the education sector, cultural events, women’s groups and farming communities. Officials and departments who receive or endorse these sponsored charities inevitably become champion spokespersons for the industry.

Revolving doors

While Article 5.3 Guidelines recommend avoiding conflicts of interest for government officials and employees, the report finds “there is a revolving door of former public officials joining the tobacco industry and vice versa. In some instances, an individual can have a foot in both the government and the industry simultaneously”.

In several countries, tobacco companies distributed their CSR initiatives directly through the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO). In Pakistan for example, British American Tobacco (BAT) donated US $35,450 to the Prime Minister for a dam fund50just one month before the government budget announcement. In Colombia, PMI engaged with the PMO for a farmers project.

In Sudan, the former President and the Minister of Industry were involved in a tobacco industry-sponsored scholarship program for university students, while in Malaysia and Tanzania, the PMO was involved in handing out school bags to grade-school students and supplying trolley push carts to street vendors, respectively, both sponsored by tobacco companies.

In Bangladesh, BAT collaborated with the Labour Welfare Foundation for a project on labor,  while in Cost Rica, PMI worked through the American Chamber of Commerce to engage with the Vice Minister of Labor on its gender equality initiative.

In India, the ITC made a financial contribution of US $1.25 million to the Maharashtra Government for flood relief activities. The check was presented during the swearing-in ceremony of the Chief Minister of the state.

In China, the state-owned tobacco enterprise, State Tobacco Monopoly Administration, conducted a range of CSR activities such as poverty alleviation.

Progress and perils

The report found that Zambia, Tanzania, Mozambique and Kazakhstan have neglected to firewall their tobacco control efforts and have been vulnerable to high levels of industry interference.

Countries that persist in viewing the tobacco industry positively and as economically crucial, such as Indonesia, Romania and Japan, leave their tobacco control policies vulnerable to being undermined or defeated. These countries also continue to show weak tobacco control measures.

Between 2018 and 2019, Pakistan, South Africa and Sri Lanka showed the most improvement. Pakistan’s improvement was across nearly every category including reversing tobacco taxation from three- back to two-tier, improving transparency and making its new policy on interaction with the tobacco industry public.

South Africa made great strides in ensuring the Ministry of Health led the effort in tobacco control policy development, rejecting submissions from the tobacco industry on its taxation policy.

Brazil, Turkey, Indonesia, Kenya and Ukraine show significant deterioration in their scores. Brazil’s deterioration is seen particularly in allowing the tobacco industry to participate in policy development.

Turkey saw deterioration in its conflict of interest situation with the appointment of the director of BAT Turkey as their new Deputy Minister of Commerce, while Indonesia’s deterioration is in increased instances of unnecessary interactions, where ministers and senior officials from multiple ministries endorsed various tobacco industry activities including signing an MOU with Sampoerna/PMI.

Recommendations

The report urges governments to protect tobacco control policies using a whole-of-government approach and to ensure non-health agencies are up to speed with Article 5.3 recommendations to stop the industry from undermining and delaying tobacco control measures.

Governments should also limit interactions with the tobacco industry to only when strictly necessary, such as when controlling and regulating the industry.

All government interactions with the tobacco industry must be recorded and made publicly available.

The report also calls for governments to “denormalise” the industry’s CSR activities, which are used “to whitewash the harm they cause to society and influence policymakers”.

As well, governments should stop giving incentives to the tobacco industry.

Now, just imagine these recommendations applied to the fossil fuels sector.


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