How Big Tobacco promoted smoking during Covid-19

Covid-19 wreaked havoc on health systems globally and thrown into disarray strategies to deal with disease control. Africa was unprepared for the pandemic, hence the huge impact. The response was slow and did not match the magnitude of the crisis.

Ironically, the tobacco industry used the opportunity to reinvent itself and saw the pandemic as both a blessing and camouflage. The link between tobacco use and Covid-19 severity has brought focus to tobacco control as a vital public health intervention.

A report launched this month by the Africa Tobacco Control Alliance (ATCA), “Covid-19 and Tobacco Control in Africa”, reveals Big Tobacco’s strategies for promotional activities during the pandemic in the continent that may have undermined its tobacco control efforts. The study shows how the tobacco industry attempted to circumvent tobacco control in many African countries wracked by Covid-19.

The industry largely and successfully used strategies like creating publicity stunts by announcing their interest to manufacture a Covid-19 vaccine from the tobacco plant, making donations, litigation and marketing their products online.

The report says citizens and corporate bodies around the world were mobilised to assist governments in cash or kind in the quest to address the health and economic challenges of the pandemic. The industry saw this as an opportunity to gain political currency and public sympathy.

Big Tobacco was found manipulating public opinion to gain an appearance of respectability. Then, new products like nicotine pouches were marketed in Kenya as alternative tobacco or nicotine products or a solution for smokers wanting to quit as a result of the link between smoking and Covid-19. Social media was preferred in order to engage with the youth.

Public manipulation

The industry used donations disguised as corporate social responsibility (CSR) activities to manipulate the public. Donations like Covid-19 essentials, including sanitisers and oxygen machines, were meant to make it seen as progressive partners. Lockdown restrictions made people struggle financially, so the industry donated to charities and hospitals—mainly aimed at influencing public perception and projecting the industry as caring and mindful of people’s welfare, especially during hard times.

Shockingly, and in one of the most brazen efforts to manipulate science, as scientists and tobacco control researchers gathered more scientific evidence about the association between tobacco use and Covid-19, the industry even shared inaccurate information about smoking being protective against the virus—including using the media, through front groups, to disseminate distorted ‘scientific’ findings that tobacco users were less likely to suffer severe cases of Covid-19. In Benin, the industry was called out for such blatant disinformation.

African governments must, therefore, put in place strong safeguards against the industry’s interference with their tobacco control efforts with a view to promoting healthy populations in the continent.

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