In the Coronavirus pandemic, the tobacco industry presents itself as the saviour in the crisis. A transparent diversionary tactic, since it has been fighting the public good for decades and ruining the health of countless people.

Making a living by damaging health, this industry cannot credibly defend public interest and people’s health in disaster scenarios such as the current pandemic. The tobacco industry has launched PR activities in large numbers which rather aim at polishing up its battered image. Tobacco companies have been trying for decades to influence public opinion by presenting themselves as charitable and sustainability-driven companies.

In the Coronavirus crisis, tobacco companies attract media attention for their vaccine research, donations to charities, political lobbying and the dissemination of fake news. The industry raises doubts about the links between infection rates, severe COVID-19 disease progression and smoking. However, according to numerous scientists and experts, smokers are actually at a higher risk of contracting Corona or suffering a severe course of the disease.

However, tobacco sales do not seem to have decreased since the beginning of the crisis. The big tobacco companies Imperial Brands and British American Tobacco have stated that they have not seen any decline in sales and still seem to be highly profitable. This is understandable, because the crisis has a serious impact on all areas of people’s lives, endangers livelihoods and leads to great psychological stress, which many people respond to with addictive behaviour. Nevertheless, there is no better time to stop smoking than now, when the risk to one’s own health is potentially even higher.

Run for your lives: Here comes the tobacco industry!

The tobacco industry has been fighting against its bad image for decades. But it has this image rightly: tobacco companies knowingly produce and sell a product that has exclusively negative consequences for people and the environment. In the crisis, the industry now has the opportunity to restore its reputation and to present itself as a saviour in times of need.

Example: Reemtsma Cigarette Factory cares for the homeless

In the German city of Hamburg, Reemtsma Cigarettenfabriken GmbH – second in the German tobacco market and subsidiary of Imperial Brands – supports homeless people with a donation of 300,000 euros for homeless facilities. The aim is to provide these people with safe and hygienic accommodation and thus to curb the spread of Corona. In its press release, Reemtsma does not skimp on self-praise for their own generosity. In this context, the cooperation with the Diakonisches Werk Hamburg and Caritas – important church institutions that also help people affected by addiction and offer smoking cessation programmes – is disputable.

Homeless people definitely need support not only during this crisis. However, media output of Reemtsma Cigarettenfabriken GmbH shows how important PR is for the cigarette industry and how the crisis is used for this purpose. Reemtsma is a highly profitable company that generates a large part of its profits at the expense of the health of its customers. For the sake of their credibility, church institutions should distance themselves from such cooperations instead of providing quotes to be exploited by the cigarette company on its website.

Example: British American Tobacco hunts for the vaccine

Worldwide, the research for a Coronavirus vaccine is feverishly pursued. Many private and commercial companies are participating in this race and conduct their own research. The tobacco industry is also involved: British American Tobacco (BAT) claims to be able to produce large quantities of vaccine doses as early as June. BAT’s biotechnology subsidiary, Kentucky BioProcessing (KBP), is undertaking research on tobacco plants and claims to have already achieved a breakthrough, but needs state support. The results of clinical tests are still pending.

Even though research on a vaccine is of fundamental importance, it should be critically analysed who is conducting and financing the research. It is unlikely that commercial companies such as BAT will suddenly mobilise funds unselfishly for the benefit of all. This is also a matter of prestige, influence and, not least, (public) research funds. But BAT is also in dire need of good press. The group is currently facing several lawsuits. Because of child labour on Malawi‘s tobacco plantations, British human rights lawyers have sued BAT for compensation on behalf of hundreds of working children and their families. In addition, both the USA and the UK are currently conducting investigations into BAT for violations of sanctions and allegations of corruption.

Example: Philip Morris worries about people‘s lungs

Philip Morris International‘s (PMI) support for Greek hospitals seems particulary grotesque. The Greek PMI subsidiary Papastratos donated ventilators to support hospitals in their fight against the COVID-19 diseases. This led to heavy criticism from tobacco control experts and can be considered as a PR stunt by PMI. PMI, one of the largest tobacco companies in the world, has significantly contributed with their products to ruin the health of many and their customers are now in the higher risk group.

PMI was also active in Romania and donated 1 million US Dollar to the Romanian Red Cross to fight the Coronavirus crisis. Among other things, this money will be used to buy respiratory equipment for hospitals.

Example: Fake news and advertising

The Global Center for Good Governance in Tobacco Control reports that false information has been spread in several countries that smoking or vaping would even protect the consumers from Corona. In addition, the tobacco industry is raising doubts about research which suggests an increased risk of disease for smokers.

The Take A Part campaign of the US Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids observed that the tobacco industry markets its products with references to COVID-19 in several countries (e.g. with keywords/slogans such as “quarantine” or “stay at home”). In the Czech Republic, for example, free home deliveries were offered and the advantages of smokeless tobacco products in the quarantine situation were highlighted. In Lebanon, IQOS was advertised in mobile text messages.

Example: Lobbying for „essential basic needs“

Governments in several countries have assessed which goods are vital and necessary to serve the basic needs of the population during the crisis. In countries like India or Russia, the sale of tobacco products has been banned. As a result, the tobacco industry is increasing the pressure on these governments to declare manufacturing sites for tobacco and e-cigarettes, shops and tobacco products as „essential“ to cater for the basic needs of the population.

South Africa has banned the sale of alcohol as well as tobacco during the 21-day lockdown. The ban is highly controversial. British American Tobacco is calling on the South African government to lift the ban, arguing that smokers would otherwise endanger the containment of the virus by searching for illegally sold cigarettes. However, the government has not classified tobacco as an essential good. On the contrary: The government warns smokers of the additional health consequences in case of a Corona infection. An association of cigarette companies in South Africa now wants to take legal action against the law.

In Russia, tobacco companies are lobbying against a government ban on the manufacturing of tobacco products. They argue that the government will lose revenue and the illegal cigarette market will grow.

Health experts, including the International Union Against Tuberculosis and Lung Disease, have called on the tobacco industry to stop all sales in light of the pandemic, thereby supporting the fight against the Coronavirus. As expected, the industry is taking a contrary course. In contrast to other industries, it is exclusively focused on a (dispensable) product that harms people and the environment and has no added value for society. If it ceases production, all revenues are lost. A production stop therefore can only be achieved by strict tobacco control and political regulation.

Crisis in the system, system in crisis

The follow-up costs of tobacco consumption in Germany alone amount to several billion euros annually. Even without the crisis, this already is a considerable burden on the health system. Also, it is becoming clear how fragile the health systems of many countries already are. Even in “highly developed” countries such as the US, Italy, Spain or the UK, conditions in hospitals are sometimes dramatic. Urgently needed intensive care beds are missing, protective equipment for hospital staff is not sufficient.

In recent years, hospitals have been valued by their economic viability. Health care systems have been cut to the bone to reduce costs, with devastating consequences in many countries. This is also a result of the tobacco industry’s interventions at government level and its interactions with governments or individual decision-makers, such as in the UK. Many members of the British government are highly experienced lobbyists that have been working amongst others for the tobacco industry. In order to limit government regulation, the tobacco industry in the UK has funded politically influential think tanks to speak for their interests.

Image promotion in the crisis obscures company interests

Certainly, all means to overcome the current crisis have to be welcomed. Societies should use anything that now relieves the burden on health systems and advances research.

However, one should critically analyse who takes action and what‘s the motivation behind it. Cooperations between the tobacco industry and government agencies, civil society or church initiatives should be strictly rejected. The tobacco industry portrays itself as a saviour in times of need, but is responsible for another creeping, but no less destructive epidemic: the tobacco epidemic. According to the WHO, 8 million people die every year from tobacco.

The tobacco industry‘s interest in people’s health is therefore doubtful. The industry has the financial means to carry out research and perhaps also to achieve breakthroughs. However, independent science and research is urgently needed. Experiences with Big Pharma show that commercial private industries have rarely used their research and products for the collective good.

The tobacco industry is no different. It appears to the public as charitable actor like in previous crisis and disasters. However, in the background the tobacco industry just continues its operational business. Tobacco companies market addictive products, convert social inequalities in profits and, on the political level, they use their charitable image to delay and prevent government regulation.

PR-Stunts, Fake News, Lobbying – The tobacco industry portrays itself as saviour in times of need during the Coronavirus crisis

Action on Smoking and Health (ASH):
regular updates on the Coronavirus and smoking

World Health Organization:
Information on Coronavirus