A new report from tobacco industry watchdog STOP suggests that the tobacco industry embraced the Covid-19 pandemic as an opportunity to gain influence, sway health policies and secure preferential treatment. Reports from civil society organizations in 80 countries, analyzed in the Global Tobacco Industry Interference Index 2021, show that no country was immune to the industry’s efforts to use lobbying and donations, often connected to the pandemic response, to its advantage.
“The tobacco industry’s behavior during Covid-19 wasn’t just business as usual—this research suggests it’s been far worse in terms of scale and impact,” said Mary Assunta, head of global research and advocacy for the Global Center for Good Governance in Tobacco Control, a partner in STOP and lead author of the index, in a statement. “In the middle of a pandemic, health should be the primary consideration in all policy decisions, but it was often sidelined in favor of the industry’s commercial interests. Where policy isn’t well protected, more lives will be lost to tobacco, and post-Covid economic recovery may be impacted, with higher health costs and potentially less tax revenue to fund recovery.”
During the pandemic, many governments were short of public health resources. Some, like Botswana, Spain, Chile and India stepped up efforts to protect health policy, but others accepted the tobacco industry’s donations or lobbying, according to the report. Increases in tobacco taxes, for example, were delayed and the industry was able to open up new markets for electronic products. Among countries in the 2021 index report, 18 governments improved how they shield themselves from industry influence while 31 governments deteriorated in their efforts.
The tobacco industry’s use of CSR donations that target the pandemic response stands in direct contrast to the importance of stopping tobacco use, according to STOP. Since the start of the pandemic, independent studies have found that smokers are more likely to develop severe Covid-19 as compared to nonsmokers. Tobacco use is a known risk factor for a range of chronic conditions that also place people at greater risk from Covid-19.
“While the pandemic wreaked havoc around the world and the global economy suffered, two of the world’s biggest tobacco companies reported earnings before tax of more than $10 billion each,” said Assunta. “Governments must hold this industry accountable, and it must not be permitted to meddle in policy. It is time for all countries to ban tobacco-related CSR activities.”