The SARS-CoV-2 pandemic has spelled bad news on the whole for smokers and the industry which supplies them. The most recent developments include the debunking of research that suggests smokers are supposedly less susceptible to the virus – accompanied by revelations that in fact the habit exacerbates the effects of the disease – as well as a public smoking ban in Galicia that has now spread across the whole of Spain.
With over one million smokers in the UK having reportedly kicked the habit since the onset of COVID-19, how great a threat does the current crisis represent to the industry which profits from their addiction? Public awareness of the dangers of smoking have never been higher, meaning the time is ripe for authorities in Europe and elsewhere to introduce measures aimed at curbing the deadly practice – but they must be wary of interference and prevarication from the ever-tenacious tobacco industry itself.
Big Tobacco under threat
At the outset of the coronavirus outbreak, smokers may have been initially cheered to hear the results of a study from China, where they were disproportionately underrepresented among sufferers of Covid-19. Subsequent research has not brought nearly such positive news; more than one peer-reviewed paper has found smokers are roughly twice as likely to experience coronavirus symptoms as non-smokers. This aligns with other studies, which found that smokers with the virus were twice as likely to be hospitalized and 1.8 times more likely to die than their non-smoking counterparts.
The addiction isn’t just damaging to those holding the cigarette, either. With bar patrons urged to keep their voices down and even theme park goers warned against screaming for fear of transmitting the virus orally, the huge clouds of smoke emitted by tobacco enthusiasts could be an ambient epidemic waiting to happen. Aware of the danger, South Africa took immediate action to ban tobacco sales in late March, although it has since revisited those restrictions. More recently, the Spanish region of Galicia and the Canary Islands archipelago both announced public smoking would be prohibited, with the rest of the country considering following suit.
The pandemic hasn’t just prompted a response from lawmakers – smokers are also reconsidering their relationship with tobacco in light of the dangers posed by the highly contagious and deadly respiratory disease. In the UK, over a million smokers have quit in the last six months, with 41% of those claiming fears of coronavirus were their primary motivation for doing so. Meanwhile, the University College London found that more people have given up smoking in the year up to June 2020 than in any other 12-month window since records began over a decade ago.
Underhanded tactics at play
Never one to take such setbacks lying down, Big Tobacco has resorted to its tried and tested tactical playbook. Among other machinations, that playbook involves obfuscating and influencing the science by funding favorable studies on the subject of coronavirus and smoking, delaying anti-tobacco regulations and claiming the industry comprises an “essential business” to avoid lockdown measures in places as diverse as Italy, Pakistan and Brazil.
At the same time, major tobacco firms have been accused of crisis-washing. Philip Morris International (PMI) donated a reported $1 million to the Romanian Red Cross and 50 ventilators to a Greek hospital, as well as an estimated €350,000 to a Ukrainian charity, with other big players reportedly having done the same. Critics claim these apparently altruistic contributions are nothing more than opportunistic PR stunts which capitalize on a global tragedy to paint Big Tobacco in a positive light – something which the industry itself vehemently rejects.
Regardless of the intent behind the donations, there are heavy suspicions that they may have contravened the Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (FCTC) protocol, which specifically prohibits governments or government-owned bodies from taking funds from the tobacco industry. Unsurprisingly, this kind of chicanery is nothing new for Big Tobacco, who have been ploughing a similar furrow for decades. Unfortunately, it’s one that continues to yield advantages for those behind the yoke, despite efforts to curb their influence.
Ineptitude and inefficiency in the EU
EU policymakers have, disappointingly, demonstrated themselves to be particularly susceptible to the tobacco industry’s malignant influence. As detailed by the OCCRP, the EU has effectively handed over large parts of its track and trace (T&T) system for illicit tobacco to firms with close ties to the industry. The system, which the FCTC has highlighted as an integral step in clamping down on a black market that costs the bloc over €10 billion per annum in lost public revenue, is intended to monitor a packet’s progress at each stage of the supply chain via a unique identifier, thus eliminating any opportunity for wrongdoing.
A central element of any successful T&T system, as defined by the Illicit Trade Protocol (ITP), is its complete independence from the industry itself. However, the OCCRP investigation has uncovered how key firms developing T&T software and handling the process have ties to the tobacco industry, including seven out of eight of the companies tasked with storing the all-important cigarette data. Meanwhile, one of the main companies monitoring hundreds of supply lines into the EU – Inexto – appears to be at least partially funded by Big Tobacco, while the very software it uses to carry out its obligations was purchased from PMI themselves for a rumored fee of just one Swiss franc.
The whole process is so riddled with inefficiencies that nine months after its implementation, insiders have said they have no idea how effective it has been in clamping down on the illegal trade, while one official from the UK’s trading standards office has called it “completely useless”. Nonetheless, EU officials have travelled the world touting the benefits of their system and several nations have already bought into the myth, with Inexto winning contracts from Mexico, Pakistan, Russia, and governments in Western Africa to date. The Pakistani contract, at least, has since been invalidated by court order.
A vaccine for industry influence
At a time when the Covid-19 crisis has thrown health concerns into sharp relief, governments and health groups should be taking a page out of the obesity debate book and generating momentum towards cutting smoking rates in their territories. While that momentum does seem to be gaining ground, it sadly does not appear to have escaped the pervasive and pernicious influence of the industry itself, which undermines the entire process.
Big Tobacco’s stratagems are widely documented and well understood – but this knowledge does not seem to be capable of preventing their success all the same. In addition to a vaccine for this deadly new coronavirus, it seems immunity against industry intervention should also be on the EU’s priority list.