According to a recent study published in the The Lancet smoking killed 7.69 million people globally in 2019, while the number of smokers rose to 1.14 billion as the habit was picked up by young people around the globe. It was also the leading risk factor for death among males (over 20% of male deaths). Another worrisome finding is that 89% of new smokers are addicted by the age of 25, thanks to the continuous nefarious tactics of Big Tobacco, which is working round the clock to addict a new generation of customers.
While all tobacco users must be encouraged to ‘Commit to Quit’- which is also the theme of 2021 World No Tobacco Day - governments also need to focus on reducing the uptake of tobacco use among young people, said the authors of The Lancet study "call on all countries to urgently adopt and enforce a comprehensive package of evidence-based policies to reduce the prevalence of tobacco use and prevent initiation, particularly among adolescents and young adults".
The tobacco industry finds ways and means to turn every effort that is designed to reduce the power of its fatal tentacles into an opportunity to sharpen them. It is trying to sabotage life-saving public health cessation measures by misleading the public about what constitutes cessation strategies by promoting their so called ‘reduced-risk nicotine products’, like electronic cigarettes and heated tobacco products as cessation tools.
Over the last decade, it has promoted e-cigarettes as cessation aids under the guise of contributing to global tobacco control, even though switching from conventional tobacco products to e-cigarettes is not quitting. According to a study "one-in-five teenagers have used e-cigarettes and 16% of them had never tried cigarettes before." E-cigarettes are not a gateway to re-normalise the act of smoking just as it was becoming de-normalised, but are potentially harmful products. Researchers says that people who use e-cigarettes have a high rate of visual impairment. Findings of another study link the use of e-cigarettes with wheezing and shortness of breath in young adults. Yet another study says that people who use e-cigarettes have a high rate of visual impairment.
"We must be guided by science and evidence, not the marketing campaigns of the tobacco industry – the same industry that has engaged in decades of lies and deceit to sell products that have killed hundreds of millions of people. E-cigarettes generate toxic chemicals, which have been linked to harmful health effects such as cardiovascular disease and lung disorders", says WHO Director General Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus.
The tobacco industry has even exploited the still raging Covid-19 pandemic and unashamedly tapped it as an opportunity to advance its own interests. Strategies used by Big Tobacco to reverse the harm caused to their sales by the pandemic lockdowns include
- marketing of newer products (such as IQOS) that are even more profitable than cigarettes and more amenable to online marketing. In many countries special offers were made for their home delivery, along with masks and hand sanitisers;
- using philanthropy to distract people from the lethal harm their products cause and build public trust back into the tobacco industry. They have given huge donations to governments and hospitals, particularly in low and middle income countries, under the garb of corporate social responsibility (CSR) activities. These apparently altruistic contributions are nothing more than public relations stunts which capitalize on a global tragedy to paint the industry in a positive light and thus threaten tobacco control progress in many countries.
In India too, tobacco companies have extensively engaged with all stakeholders, including the central and state governments, non-governmental organisations and trade groups, during COVID-19, under the garb of CSR collaboration. According to one study, the Indian tobacco industry gave about US$ 36.7 million in donations to various government funds, including the ‘Prime Minister’s Citizen Assistance and Relief in Emergency Situations Fund’ (PM CARES Fund) of the Government of India and the Chief Minister’s Relief Fund of different state governments, between March 2020 and June 2020. These contributions were publicised in leading newspapers and mentioned on high-profile Twitter accounts of cabinet ministers and Chief Ministers. The companies used their corporate trademarks (which are also used on their tobacco products) in all such CSR activities. These instances of CSR activities by Indian tobacco companies, especially the use of companies’ trademarks, not only constitute breaches of Cigarettes and Other Tobacco Products Act 2003 (COTPA 2003) Section 5 (3)(b), but also contravene the guidelines for implementation of Article 13 and Article 5.3 of the legally binding global tobacco treaty (formally called as the World Health Organization Framework Convention on Tobacco Control or WHO FCTC).
"During this crisis of the pandemic, it is becomes more relevant than ever to not only strengthen the implementation of existing tobacco control laws but also bring in new laws, both at the local and national level to make sure that the tobacco industry does not indulge in any direct or indirect advertising or promotion of tobacco products, through its CSR and other activities", said Dr Thriveni B S, a member of Asia Pacific Cities Alliance for Health and Development (APCAT) and Project Director, Partnership for Healthy Cities Initiative, Bengaluru in India.
It has been suggested that, in the interest of public health, India should ban mandatory CSR activities for tobacco companies, under the Companies Act, and instead collect an equivalent amount as a direct government levy of 2% on the net profits of tobacco companies. This funding could then be allocated for tobacco control and other public health purposes (including COVID-19 relief) as done by Thailand and some other countries. This will eliminate the tobacco industry’s choice over how such money is spent, reduce the CSR-related opportunities for corporate image enhancement and minimise CSR-related policy influence. It would also be consistent with India’s obligations under both Article 5.3 and Article 13 of the WHO FCTC and its commitments made to protect people from harms of tobacco under COTPA. Policymakers should not permit tobacco companies to continue exploiting public health emergencies for corporate gains.
Recently a Nepal charity, Kathmandu Institute of Child Health, rejected a ‘donation’ of US$ 400,000 for a new children’s hospital from Surya Nepal, the country’s largest tobacco company due to mounting pressure from tobacco control advocates and media exposure, thus preventing the company’s greenwashing attempts to improve its public image while simultaneously marketing its deadly products.
Rightly remarks Dr Tara Singh Bam, Asia Pacific Director at the International Union Against Tuberculosis and Lung Disease (The Union): “Even in times of public health emergencies of international concern the tobacco industry continues to spread misinformation. At the same time tobacco companies continue to aggressively market their products, which cause 8 million deaths every year. But the message is loud and clear: tobacco industry tactics to undermine public health will not be tolerated.”
Let us not forget that the tobacco industry- an industry of disease and death- will stop at nothing to increase the sale of its lethal products. It is imperative for policy makers and all stakeholders to ensure that not only do current tobacco users quit, but also that no new users join the race and get hooked to the deadly habit.
(Shobha Shukla is the award-winning founding Managing Editor and Executive Director of CNS (Citizen News Service) and is a feminist, health and development justice advocate. She is a former senior Physics faculty of prestigious Loreto Convent College and current Coordinator of Asia Pacific Regional Media Alliance for Health and Development (APCAT Media). Follow her on Twitter @shobha1shukla or read her writings here www.bit.ly/ShobhaShukla)