At WHA, civil society calls for tobacco control in COVID-19 response

Our COVID-19 coverage is free. Please consider a Devex Pro subscription to support our journalism.
No-smoking signs at a primary school in the city of Handan in northern China's Hebei province. Photo by: Hu Gaolei / China Images via Reuters

MANILA — Over 100 civil society organizations and individuals have expressed dismay over the exclusion of tobacco control from a draft resolution put forward by member states at the 73rd World Health Assembly.

In a letter published Friday, they said the draft resolution “failed to address the serious challenges posed by the tobacco industry” during the coronavirus crisis. They accused the industry of sowing “confusion” in health messaging around COVID-19 and of “branding itself as part of the solution” through its financial and in-kind donations of personal protective equipment and medical devices such as ventilators and respirators.

World Health Assembly

Follow our coverage of the World Health Assembly for the latest news and insider conversations on universal health coverage, global health security, and WHO reforms.

Tobacco kills over 8 million people annually and has substantial economic costs, according to the World Health Organization, which considers all forms of tobacco use, including heated tobacco products such as vaporizers, harmful. In a statement last week, the health agency emphasized that tobacco is “a known risk factor for many respiratory infections and increases the severity of respiratory diseases.” In April, a review of studies on the subject found that “smokers are more likely to develop severe disease with COVID-19, compared to non-smokers.”

WHO warned researchers, scientists, and media about “amplifying unproven claims that tobacco or nicotine could reduce the risk of COVID-19,” adding that “there is currently insufficient information to confirm any link between tobacco or nicotine in the prevention or treatment of COVID-19.”

But since February, a number of blog posts and articles have cast doubt on smokers’ vulnerability to COVID-19. The Global Center for Good Governance in Tobacco Control — a joint initiative of the Southeast Asia Tobacco Control Alliance and Thammasat University’s School of Global Studies in Thailand — has been keeping track of such pieces, saying that some of them have links to the tobacco industry.

Deborah Sy, head of global public policy and strategy at the Global Center for Good Governance in Tobacco Control and partner in Stopping Tobacco Organizations and Products, told Devex that the industry employed similar tactics during the outbreak of severe acute respiratory syndrome in 2003.

“I think the tobacco industry is aggressive with what they’re doing because they’re aware the pandemic is going to show us what tobacco can do. It can kill so many people,” she said.

Several countries have banned tobacco sales as part of their efforts to limit the spread of COVID-19 but also because it is considered a nonessential product. In South Africa, the decision was connected to smoking’s effect on the lungs.

But the industry has questioned these moves. The company British American Tobacco South Africa, for instance, warned that the ban on tobacco could even be counterproductive to the purpose of the lockdown. It would force smokers to go outside to search for places to purchase cigarettes, thereby increasing the odds of catching or spreading COVID-19, the company suggested.

Others in the industry also cautioned that bans may increase the illicit trade of tobacco, which could impact livelihoods and government revenue.

Some, meanwhile, have promoted electronic cigarettes and vaping devices as alternatives.

"Stay-at-home restrictions have provided insights into how we could support smokers to quit," said Derek Yach, president of the Foundation for a Smoke-Free World — a nonprofit funded by Philip Morris International — in a press release.

“The tobacco industry is aggressive with what they’re doing because they’re aware the pandemic is going to show us what tobacco can do. It can kill so many people.”

— Deborah Sy, head of global public policy and strategy, Global Center for Good Governance in Tobacco Control

"We need to encourage them empathetically to move away from combustibles by educating them about patches, gum, and e-cigarettes that are less harmful than smoking, while making sure these tools are readily available. If we do that, smokers could exit the lockdowns with better prospects for their future health,” he added. The press release also revealed the results of a poll conducted across a handful of countries in April, showing increased smoking among respondents trying to cope with stress and anxiety amid COVID-19 lockdowns.

“With these tactics, the tobacco industry has successfully masked the fact that its products cause USD $460 billion in health care costs annually,” Friday’s civil-society letter said.

The signatories to the letter urged governments to strengthen their implementation of the WHO Framework Convention on Tobacco Control by including it in their COVID-19 response plans. The letter also called on WHO’s director-general to integrate the FCTC into the health agency’s work, including efforts to counter COVID-19 misinformation.

Sy said the FCTC, like the International Health Regulations, is a legally binding treaty. “WHA can do the world a favor if it can remind governments to strengthen implementation of this treaty,” she said.

Update, May 19, 2020: This article has been updated to reflect that Deborah Sy is head of global public policy and strategy at the Global Center for Good Governance in Tobacco Control and partner in Stopping Tobacco Organizations and Products.

About the author

  • Jenny Lei Ravelo

    Jenny Lei Ravelo is a Devex Senior Reporter based in Manila. She covers global health, with a particular focus on the World Health Organization, and other development and humanitarian aid trends in Asia Pacific. Prior to Devex, she wrote for ABS-CBN, one of the largest broadcasting networks in the Philippines, and was a copy editor for various international scientific journals. She received her journalism degree from the University of Santo Tomas.