Health pays the price when Big Tobacco woos policymakers

Covid-19 reminds us of the scourge of tobacco: smoking or being a former smoker increases the risk of severe illness from the coronavirus

The Telegraph: 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.

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

New Global Index Shows Aggressive Tobacco Industry Lobbying in 2019 and Exploitation of COVID-19 Pandemic in 2020

Data from 57 Countries Reveal Governments Aren’t Doing Enough to Protect Policy From Industry Influence

BANGKOK and NEW YORK (November 17, 2020– New research citing evidence collected by civil society groups in 57 countries reveals that, during 2019, the tobacco industry stepped up efforts to lobby governments through departments of finance, customs, and trade. This enabled the industry to further expand its influence during the COVID-19 crisis in 2020.

The Global Tobacco Industry Interference Index 2020, released by STOP, a global tobacco industry watchdog, outlines how governments were vulnerable to the industry gaining influence, while some acted to prevent it. Patterns emerged showing how:

  • Corporate social responsibility initiatives created access to officials and a false perception of tobacco companies as responsible actors;
  • Public officials were offered jobs in the tobacco industry and vice versa, creating potential conflicts of interest;
  • Tobacco companies exploited a lack of transparency and coordination across government agencies to gain access.

Based on analysis of the 57 country reports, Ministries of Finance, Trade, Agriculture, Development and other non-health agencies were the most susceptible to influence, according to the Index’s lead author, Mary Assunta, a partner in STOP and Head of Global Research and Advocacy at the Global Centre for Good Governance in Tobacco Control (GGTC). By sidestepping health ministries, tobacco companies secured tax breaks and influenced policy decisions that helped them continue to sell products that kill more than 8 million people every year.

Best Performing GovernmentsWorst Performing GovernmentsMost Improved Governments
1. Brunei Darussalam
2. France
3. Uganda
1. Japan
2. Indonesia
3. Zambia
1. Pakistan
2. South Africa
3. Sri Lanka

During the COVID-19 pandemic, the industry sought to secure a continuation and expansion of tax breaks and a relaxation of tobacco control policies, despite the increased need for governments to implement measures that protect health and advance economic recovery.

“The message to governments is: do not take the bait when it comes to industry offers. With tobacco, there are always strings attached and ultimately the cost is paid in human lives,” said Mary Assunta. “Governments can hold tobacco companies liable for the harm they cause instead, offering a win-win for the economy and health that is especially important during the coronavirus pandemic.”

No Government Is Immune to Industry Interference

While Big Tobacco aggressively targets low- and middle-income nations with larger populations and weaker regulations, the Index shows rich countries are also susceptible to industry interference. JapanIndonesia and Zambia rank worst overall because of deep links between the government and industry.  This year, Brunei DarussalamFrance and Uganda ranked best, with the 2019 report’s best-ranked country, the United Kingdom, slipping to fourth place due to links between industry and current government ministers and industry participation in two government consultations during 2019.

The Index details dozens of instances where governments let their guard down and the tobacco industry took advantage:

  • Tanzania and Zambia, the two worst performing countries in Africa, have delayed tobacco control legislation for years due to tobacco’s meddling.
  • Industry lobbying undermined efforts to increase tobacco taxes in BangladeshColombia and Germany.
  • In Indonesia, Philip Morris International (PMI)’s local subsidiary, PT HM Sampoerna Tbk, signed an agreement with the government to conduct research on heated tobacco products (HTPs), which the company sells, and in Colombia the government allowed PMI to produce HTPs after the company threatened to withdraw tobacco production operations from the country.
  • FranceGermany and Japan have given preferential tax treatment to HTPs, taxing them at a lower rate than cigarettes, when there is no evidence these products are any safer than smoking.
  • In Pakistan, British American Tobacco (BAT) donated US $35,450 to the Prime Minister for a dam fund, just one month before the government budget announcement.
  • At the request of the governor of a tobacco-growing region, a senator in Mexico attended a BAT event where he spoke in favor of the industry.
  • In Nigeria, the tobacco industry sits in the standards organization that determines the standards of tobacco products.

Actions Governments Can Take to Identify and Prevent Tobacco Industry Interference

  • Avoid conflicts of interest.
  • Adopt measures to protect public officials from industry influence.
  • Prevent tobacco industry participation in policy.
  • Avoid unnecessary interactions with the tobacco industry and ensure transparency of meetings that do occur.
  • De-normalize the industry’s so-called corporate social responsibility activities and implement transparency measures: make the industry disclose its marketing, lobbying and philanthropic activities.
  • Stop benefits and incentives for the tobacco industry.

The Industry Is Exploiting COVID-19

The report notes a disturbing trend: the tobacco industry found ways throughout 2019 to aggressively market novel tobacco products, which are addictive and harmful, as a solution to the tobacco epidemic the industry itself created. It has continued this strategy in 2020, using relatively inexpensive donations to promote itself as a partner to governments fighting the COVID-19 pandemic. Such gestures mask the enormous burden tobacco use places on people’s health as well as health systems worldwide and provides a platform to curry favor for future policy changes. Examples include:

  • Bangladesh, where BAT Bangladesh provided personal protection equipment (PPE) to public hospitals. The Ministry of Industries wrote to various agencies asking them to cooperate with BAT and Japan Tobacco International (JTI) during the COVID-19 shutdown.
  • In Costa Rica, PMI donated artificial respirators to hospitals. The company launched its IQOS product in the country this year.
  • Kenya, where BAT Kenya contributed 300,000 liters of sanitizer to government agencies. Tobacco was listed as an “essential product” during the pandemic.
  • The Philippines, where Philip Morris Fortune Tobacco Corporation donated medical equipment. Throughout the past year, policymakers have been deliberating on legalizing HTPs.
  • In Indonesia, PMI’s local subsidiary, PT HM Sampoerna Tbk, used donations of sanitizer, PPE and other goods as opportunities for marketing and media coverage. The company also requested policy changes, including asking the local government of Bali to roll back restrictions on outdoor tobacco advertising.

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