Without a puff of irony, British American Tobacco announced earlier this month it was making making progress in its research towards developing a vaccine for Covid-19. If successful, this move might well save the lives of many of their customers – who could then carry on killing themselves.
Vaccine development in a time of international crisis is the public-facing image the tobacco industry now wants to project: an altruistic business putting people before profit. Nothing could be further from the truth, as the World Health organisation revealed when it investigated behind-the-scenes activity in the industry. WHO reported that the tobacco lobby is applying pressure on governments during Covid-19 to have tobacco retailers listed as “essential”, and even offered to deliver cigarettes and other tobacco products to people in quarantine.
Tobacco has a problem: the industry kills 8 million people a year globally. As Western countries, including the UK, have become increasingly successful in reducing smoking rates among the general population, the industry has turned to the developing world to replace the customers they are losing through quitting or death.
Far from viewing the coronavirus pandemic as a problem, the tobacco industry thinks it is an opportunity to establish relationships with key policy makers around the world. The largest tobacco company in India developed a contingency fund that facilitates collaboration with district level decision makers. Building these connections and relationships is normal and crucial for any business. But for the tobacco industry this type of activity not only enhances their reputation for social responsibility, it gives them direct access to those responsible for the regulatory environment in which they work.
The interface between the tobacco industry and governments in developing countries is not a meeting of equals. They need to recruit young people as their older customers die, often prematurely. Despite strict regulations in many countries about the marketing of cigarettes the industry employs tactics aimed at attracting young people and ensure unrestricted access to tobacco products. In Peru, single cigarettes are sold near schools with flavours such as berry, lemon or grape. In Indonesia, tobacco adverts are placed strategically next to schools. Tobacco company reps hand out free cigarettes and promotional material designed to be attractive to children.
Another tactic used by the tobacco industry, historically and during this pandemic, is to create doubt and confusion. When early data shows a mismatch between the proportion of smokers contracting this virus compared to non-smokers, suggestions are made that nicotine provides a form of protection against the virus. Even if that were subsequently found to be true (we cannot yet know; it is too early to have clear research findings), it conveniently distracts attention from the elevated risk of dying that smokers face when they contract Covid-19. Smoking compromises respiratory functioning and long-term smokers are at increased risk of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, an irreparable lung condition. Having optimal lung function is a critical when contracting this virus, marking the difference between survival and death – a point the World Health Organisation has repeated and made clear for the avoidance of doubt.
Globally public health organisations, such as the UK’s Public Health England, are not well funded and no match for the resources available to big tobacco. The fight is not just economically uneven it is morally and ethically unequal. Imagine the difference that could be made to population health if this business applied the same energy and resources that it currently employs in encouraging smoking towards reducing the habit. Instead considerable time and money is spent on how regulation can be circumvented or manipulate policy in their interest.
This crisis has highlighted some genuinely social-minded business and some morally bankrupt practice, the tobacco industry viewing this pandemic as an opportunity for growth is a true leader in corporate deviancy.
Ian Hamilton is a lecturer at the Department of Health Sciences at the University of York