Coronavirus: Group urges African governments to mobilise against tobacco industry

Tobacco multinationals are using the COVID-19 crisis to engage in activities that either help clean their image or challenge governments for restricting or banning the sale of tobacco products, the African Tobacco Control Alliance has said.

In a statement Monday, the group said the practice further complicates things for Africa, which in addition to the Coronavirus pandemic, is dealing with malaria, HIV, non-communicable diseases, and poverty.

The group said it is heartbreaking to know that despite several studies and experts’ warnings that smoking could render individuals more vulnerable to coronavirus, the tobacco industry still sets out to push for the availability of its products during imposed lockdowns.

“To date, tobacco use is known to have a considerable impact on lung health being associated with several respiratory diseases,” the group said.

“Smoking is also detrimental to the immune system and its responsiveness to infections, making smokers more vulnerable to infectious diseases.

“Previous studies have even shown that smokers are twice more likely than non-smokers to contract influenza and had more severe symptoms, while smokers were also noted to have higher mortality in the previous coronavirus (MERS-CoV) outbreak.”

Earlier this month, the British American Tobacco announced it was working on plant-based coronavirus vaccine, with a potential to manufacture 1-3 million doses per week.

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In March, Papastratos, an affiliate of Philip Morris International, the world’s largest multinational tobacco company, donated 50 ventilators for use in Greek Hospitals.

Back in Africa, Rwandan businessman, Tribert Ayabatwa, the owner of Meridian Tobacco Company and Leaf Tobacco and Commodities, contributed Shs250million (about $70,000) to support the fight against COVID-19 in Uganda.

Such contributions from the tobacco industry undermine governments’ credibility as there is an irreconcilable conflict between the industry’s interests and public policy interests, the WHO had warned.

“It is important that African countries heed this call and do not let the tobacco industry gain the ability to influence tobacco control policies in the future through their assistance to deal with COVID-19 today,” ATCA said.

According to ATCA, several African civil society organisations have taken the initiative of calling on governments to use this COVID-19 outbreak as an opportunity to step up measures to protect citizens from smoking and its related consequences.

The Ghana NCD Alliance, for example, has called on the government to ban alcohol and cigarette sales, and give special care to NCD patients.

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In Botswana, the government banned the sale and importation of tobacco and related products as the country forges its fight against the COVID-19 pandemic, just after civil society urged it to do so.

“The African Tobacco Control Alliance (ATCA) congratulates African governments for taking bold initiatives to contain the spread of the virus, and encourages them to remain steadfast even as the tobacco industry attempts to derail such actions,” the group said.

“Public health must always be top priority for any government, and ATCA condemns the shameful and unorthodox strategies being implemented by tobacco industry to thrive its business, even in the midst of a deadly pandemic; which has been particularly proven to be aggravated by smoking.

“ATCA calls on the African tobacco control community to be vigilant during this period and take actions to isolate all efforts of the tobacco industry to exploit the COVID-19 pandemic be they to continue to market tobacco products, or to clean its image through donations, or corporate social responsibility initiatives.”

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