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Tobacco Control campaign during a pandemic – lessons and opportunities

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By Hilda Ochefu

The current pandemic (COVID-19) slowly sneaked into the world through Wuhan-China late 2019 and then took us all by surprise. In January 2020, governments, corporations and organizations were very busy developing their strategies and fine-tuning what the year was going to look like and in their optimist predictions, never imagined that a big disruption was about to hit the world in an unprecedented way.

So, with the world in complete and partial lockdown for weeks and months and the global economy currently in tartars and governments scrambling for health and economic solutions, what is the place of tobacco control? Controlling tobacco use remains very relevant during the current pandemic; tobacco remains the number one PREVENTABLE cause of death of 8 million people every year globally (according to the World Health Organization – WHO). A review of studies by public health experts convened by WHO on 29 April 2020 found that smokers are more likely to develop severe disease with COVID-19, compared to non-smokers. Tobacco smoking is a known risk factor for many respiratory infections and increases the severity of respiratory diseases like coronaviruses. Tobacco is also a major risk factor for non-communicable diseases like cardiovascular disease, cancer, respiratory disease and diabetes which put people with these conditions at higher risk for developing severe illness when affected by COVID-19. Available research also suggests that smokers are at higher risk of dying from this disease.

While there is currently no conclusive evidence that smokers are more vulnerable to being infected with coronavirus compared to non-smokers, it is now a known fact that COVID-19 is a respiratory disease, that people with pre-existing health conditions are more vulnerable to the incidence of the virus and smoking compromises respiratory functioning and long-term smokers are at increased risk of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. The current pandemic presents a unique opportunity for smokers to quit and across the world, there are reports of several smokers getting this message. In the United Kingdom, a recent joint survey carried out by YouGov and the campaign group, Action on Smoking and Health (ASH), concludes that more than 300,000 smokers may have quit because of COVID-19 fears while a further 550,000 have tried to quit and 2.4 million have cut down.

In the United States, like in every country in the world, COVID-19 is not sparing young people (majority of smokers are young). Data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention suggest that a little more than half of hospitalizations are Americans below 65 years and about 22 percent are below the age of 50. President of the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids, Matt Myers states: “your age doesn’t matter if your lungs are compromised”. WHO insists that because smoking involves repeated hand-to-face motions, it creates a route of potential viral transmissions, like the coronavirus. A recent study published in the New England Journal of Medicine concluded that smokers are more likely to progress to the severe stage of coronavirus than non-smokers.

Evidence from across the world has shown that far from viewing the coronavirus pandemic as a huge problem for humanity, the tobacco industry sees it as an opportunity to continue establishing and deepening its relationships with key policy makers around the world. This is as the tobacco industry continues to turn to the developing world to replace the customers it will lose through quitting, disease or death. In Nigeria, British American Tobacco through its Foundation reached out to one of the Governors “offering support” to the COVID-19 response in his State. In Uganda, the Rwandan business mogul, Tribert Rujugiro Ayabatwa, (owner of the Pan African Tobacco Groups – Meridian Tobacco and Leaf Tobacco and Companies) “responded” to the government’s call to companies by donating 250 million Uganda SHS to the COVID-19 National Task Force. The tobacco industry is not just trying to use the opportunity of the pandemic to continue burnishing its image in Africa. In April 2020, Philip Morris International (PMI) announced that its Greek affiliate – Papastrato – would donate 50 ventilators, including 19 for ICUs – Intensive Care Units – to a General Hospital in Athens, in order to help “flatten the curve” in Greece.

Apart from donations, tobacco companies are jostling to provide solutions to the current public health crisis. PMl says it is working on vaccines against the coronavirus and claims it has tasked Medicago (a bio-pharmaceutical company with headquarters in Canada, that it partly funds) with this responsibility. On April 1, 2020, The Guardian UK and international media organizations published a statement from British American Tobacco (BAT) claiming that it had developed a potential vaccine for the Coronavirus.
As expected, the global public health community rightly views these reports of donations and claims of developing vaccines with a lot of skepticism and consider them tactics being used by the tobacco industry to launder its image in order to be considered a credible stakeholder in public health. Deborah Arnott, Chief Executive of Action on Smoking and Health (ASH) UK, spoke the minds of the public health community in response to PMI’s donation of 50 ventilators to the Greek government. She described it as “a shameful publicity stunt”. In response to the spate of donations and claims by the tobacco industry, WHO made the following statement: “partnership with the tobacco industry undermines governments’ credibility in protecting population health as there is a fundamental and irreconcilable conflict between the tobacco industry’s interests and public health policy interests”.

The world is a long way from finding a vaccine let alone a cure for COVID-19. Experts are on record predicting that the process for an effective cure will take almost a year. These tobacco industry tactics are a potential threat to the progress countries have made over the past decade to fulfill their obligations under the WHO’s Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (FCTC).

As countries in Africa scramble for solutions to manage the Coronavirus pandemic, public health advocates are deeply concerned that the “Greek Gifts” being offered to countries by the tobacco industry would probably be accepted. This will certainly undermine the requirements of the FCTC. The current pandemic calls for continued vigilance by advocates. It also points to the need for the full and effective implementation of Nigeria’s National Tobacco Control Act, 2015 and Tobacco Control Regulations, 2019 in order to protect millions of lives of its citizens especially the kids.

Hilda Ochefu is the Sub-Regional Coordinator for West Africa at the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids and writes from Abuja