Tobacco use carries risk of COVID-19 transmission and leads to worse health outcomes for COVID-19 patients. COVID-19 also endangers those with non-communicable diseases (NCDs) for which smoking is a major risk factor.
Life-saving tobacco control measures that urge smokers to quit would not only address the tobacco epidemic, but also reduce the burden the pandemic has imposed on healthcare systems. However, the tobacco industry, known to be the vector of the tobacco epidemic, causing 1.4 trillion dollars of economic losses annually along with 8 million deaths, has managed to project itself as a “solution” during the COVID-19 crisis. It has effectively concealed its role in promoting lethal products and downplaying the risks these products pose in relation to COVID-19.
Of particular challenge is that the COVID-19 crisis creates an exceptional need for all forms of support, including donations from the private sector, which includes the tobacco industry. The World Health Organization Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (WHO FCTC) categorizes donations from the tobacco industry as corporate social responsibility (CSR), which enhances the reputation of the industry and enables it to market its products and lobby for weak tobacco control measures. Hence, countries that have not banned so-called CSR from the tobacco industry should do so. In cases where contributions have been received, governments must:
- inform all their sectors about the true purpose of tobacco industry so-called CSR activities;
- not endorse, support or participate in activities tied to the contribution;
- disallow publicity of contributions; and
- require the industry to submit information on all its so-called CSR activities and how these have been publicized.
The pandemic calls for strict regulation of an industry that produces products that provide no benefits whatsoever, kills up to half of its 2
consumers and increases the severity of COVID-19. To be consistent with the WHO FCTC in their response to the pandemic, governments can require from the tobacco industry:
- timely payment of taxes (no deferment),
- financial support for its workforce as well as small and medium enterprises (SMEs) in its supply and distribution chain,
- full compliance with temporary sales restrictions/bans, and
- surcharges or fees on its products in place of donations.
This is justified by the increased risk of worse COVID-19 outcomes due to smoking.
Finally, governments should advance implementation of the WHO FCTC in their efforts to address the COVID-19 pandemic. Governments must urge smokers to quit and create tobacco- and nicotine-free environments in workplaces and public spaces. In reviewing economic stimulus packages, governments must ensure that tobacco-sourced health financing is tapped to fund healthcare systems and tobacco control programs, and that food security programs include initiatives