Cigarette burning on a surface

‘Corona-washing’: How the tobacco industry is advancing its interests in the midst of the pandemic

17 April 2020
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Yannick Romero, Advocacy Networks Manager

Union for International Cancer Contol, Geneva, Switzerland

Cigarettes are not considered to be essential consumer goods in most countries and therefore are not included in national planning to ensure supply to the general public. As many small shops selling food and essential products remain open, however, tobacco and e-cigarettes are still accessible to consumers on a daily basis. There are some exceptions, where selling cigarettes has been banned1 during national lockdowns. Nonetheless, several investment analysts are claiming that tobacco stocks are not being impacted by the pandemic2, as a majority of countries have not taken steps to curtail the sale of tobacco products during the pandemic3.

Meanwhile, there is a growing body of evidence that smokers are at a higher risk of complications and severe symptoms of coronavirus4. The Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in the US, has warned against smoking as well as vaping, as these, can increase the risk of developing serious symptoms if coronavirus is contra5.

In addition to maintaining its profitability during the pandemic, the tobacco industry is trying to present itself as a positive stakeholder in global health and not as an industry with the core business of promoting harmful products.

Many companies are responding to the global crisis and have switched or adapted their product lines to meet needs for health-preserving or life-saving devices and tools, such as ventilators by the car industry, breathing masks from the sports and textile industries, or perfume industry producing hand sanitiser. The tobacco industry is similarly aiming to position itself as part of this solidarity movement.

Recent days have witnessed the emergence of a series of new tobacco industry tactics to reform their images, such as British American Tobacco (BAT) announcing the development of a vaccine against the SARS-CoV-2 using tobacco leaves, or Philip Morris International donating 50 ventilators Greece to help combat the coronavirus pandemic.

This is certainly ironic if not downright hypocritical, given the numerous deleterious effects of tobacco use on health, particularly with regard to serious respiratory diseases, lung cancer and cardiac dysfunctions.

Furthermore, as the coronavirus pandemic continues to ravage national and regional economies, the tobacco industry - currently one of the most profitable businesses globally – is providing financial incentives in the form of philanthropy as a new public relations campaign6. In South Africa, for instance, Johann Rupert, a tobacco industry-affiliated businessman, has committed to donating R1 billion (USD 50 million) to a solidarity fund for South African businesses affected by the coronavirus7.

In these times of uncertainty and a rapidly evolving environment, policymakers, the general public and even members of the global health community could be misled by such “goodwill” tactics and buy into the image makeover.

It is, therefore, all the more important to draw attention to the cynical nature of these recent moves by the tobacco industry and continue to emphasise the evidence and science exposing the risks of smoking – particularly in the midst of a dangerous respiratory disease pandemic.

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3 BMJ Journals: The tobacco industry in the time of COVID-19: time to shut it down?

4 The World Health Organization: Tobacco and waterpipe use increases the risk of suffering from COVID-19

5 Center for disease control and prevention: Information for People who are at Higher Risk for Severe Illness

6 University of Bath: The extreme profitability of the UK tobacco market and the rationale for a new tobacco levy

7 Business Insider South Africa: Here's how much Rupert, Oppenheimer will be worth after donating R1 billion each

About the author

Yannick Romero is an Advocacy Networks Manager within the Knowledge, Advocacy and Policy team at UICC. His work focuses on tobacco control globally, developing and gathering evidence-based information. In addition, Yannick dedicates his time to national cancer control planning, which consists of the analysis and evaluation of country cancer plans in the frame of the International Cancer Control Partnership. In the past decade, he has worked in the area of cancer, communicable diseases and genetics with multiple stakeholders including private companies, hospitals, research institutes and civil society organisations. Yannick holds a PhD in Biology from the University of Geneva Medical School.

Last update: 
Friday 17 April 2020