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Coronavirus and tobacco industry duplicity

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Sir: Lately, tobacco corporations have been getting special mention in the news just like they have always wanted. They crave the publicity. From donations to governments, unverified claims of new vaccines and proposals for partnerships, among others, one thing is certain: The same companies whose products kill an estimated eight million people annually, according to the World Health Organisation (WHO), are now jostling to be in the saddle of public health policy.

On April 1, 2020, Philip Morris International (PMI) announced that its Greek affiliate-Papastratos had sourced and paid for 50 ventilators, including 19 for intensive care units at a General Hospital in Athens, to help “flatten the curve” in Greece. The report received further boost on social media, thanks to PMI Director of Communications for Greece, Stavros Drakoularakos, who tweeted that he was “sky-high proud” and described the move as “proof of what sheer will and collaborations can achieve.”

PMI also says it is working on vaccines against coronavirus and claims it has tasked Medicago—a Canada-headquartered bio-pharmaceutical company, that it partly funds—with this task.

Without coincidence, on the same April 1, The Guardian UK and other media outfits published a statement from British American Tobacco (BAT) that it had developed a potential vaccine for coronavirus. It also claimed that the vaccine is now in pre-clinical testing and assured that if testing goes well, “with the right partners and support from government agencies”, between one and three million doses of the vaccine could be manufactured weekly, beginning in June 2020.

The public health community takes the reports with a pinch of salt and insists that the tobacco industry is acting a script that revolves around posturing and garnering media attention whenever a public health scare grips the world. They readily point to BAT’s ZMapp, a supposed cure for Ebola virus that enjoyed wide media spotlight during the 2015-2016 outbreak, but never made it out of the laboratory.

Chief Executive of Action on Smoking and Health, Deborah Arnott, spoke the minds of the public health community in response to PMI’s donation of 50 ventilators to the Greek government, describing it as “a shameful publicity stunt.”

Arnott, like many other experts would rather that governments reject tobacco corporations’ “Greek gifts” and stick instead, with Article 5.3 of the WHO’s first public health treaty-the Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (WHO-FCTC), which advised Parties to insulate their public health policies from the tobacco industry’s vested interests.

In response to the spate of so-called interventions by the tobacco industry on coronavirus, the WHO has said, “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’.”

It asserts that the tobacco industry was trying to be “part of the solution, proposing support and donations” to countries to improve its corporate image by showing “social responsibility to the population, media and decision makers”, with governments “struggling with lack of resources and limited supplies of medical equipment during the Covid-19 pandemic.”

The industry partnerships and others in the making are not restricted only to Europe or the so-called developed world. Here in Nigeria, a governor of one of the Southwest states, probably swayed by the global news about the industry partnerships, asked for donations from BAT Nigeria to combat the raging coronavirus pandemic in his state. A host of civil society groups led by the Environmental Rights Action/Friends of the Earth Nigeria (ERA/FoEN) have however risen to the occasion and criticized the move.

Many question the timing of the current tobacco industry media blitz at the same time the same industry is fighting global backlash owing to studies showing that smoking can make people more susceptible to serious complications from the coronavirus infection. South Africa is one of the countries that have banned cigarettes as part of its coronavirus lockdown strategy. Several countries across the world have equally banned tobacco products such as Hookah (Shisha). Russia, Egypt, Iran, India, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, Oman, Turkey, Uzbekistan and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) are some of them.

The WHO insists that because smoking involves repeated hand-to-face motions, it creates a route of potential viral transmission, like the coronavirus.

A recent study published in the New England Journal of Medicine also alerts that smokers are much more likely to progress to the severe stage of coronavirus than non-smokers. Another study investigating the link between coronavirus and smoking x-rayed clinical outcomes from 1,099 patients with laboratory-confirmed coronavirus infection from 532 hospitals across China and discovered that 12.4 per cent of currents smokers either died, were admitted to an intensive care unit or required mechanical ventilation, compared with 4.7 per cent of non-smokers. Along similar lines, 21.2 per cent of current smokers had severe symptoms, as opposed to 14.5 per cent of non-smokers.

The spontaneity of global action banning tobacco products to contain the coronavirus deaths should therefore be a wake-up call to a country like Nigeria where the catch phrase for government is “partnership.”

Rather than explore partnership with an industry that is undeniably sworn to sustaining the marketing and sale of its lethal products, the Nigeria government should now stop sloganeering and progress in enforcing the National Tobacco Control (NTC) Act, 2015 and the recently gazetted National Tobacco Control (NTC) Regulations, 2019. This will put Nigeria in compliance with the WHO-FCTC and in the map of countries on a steady path to ensuring the health and wellbeing of present and future generations.

It is important to reiterate that only a recourse to WHO FCTC’s life-saving recommendations, which have proven to be effective in curbing tobacco-induced deaths, is the way to go. The WHO emphasises that the key to addressing tobacco industry interference is to reject partnerships and non-binding or non-enforceable agreements with the industry.

In real terms, an industry that produces and markets products that kills its users and (the rest of us through second-hand smoke) cannot lead the way in solving the tobacco menace or the coronavirus pandemic.

• Otobrise Omokaro wrote from Delta State.


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