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Tobacco giants fume over claims they exploited COVID-19 with Romania, Greece & Ukraine donations

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Archive image: a cigarette butts in an ashtray in New York
Archive image: a cigarette butts in an ashtray in New York   -   Copyright  Jenny Kane/AP
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Two tobacco titans have hit back at allegations they are using the COVID-19 health crisis to improve their public image and win access to politicians.

Philip Morris International subsidiary, Papastratos, gave 50 respirators to Greek hospitals to help them cope during the pandemic.

The Romanian Red Cross was given a financial donation — reported to be $1 million — by Philip Morris International.

Philip Morris International and Imperial Tobacco both donated money in Ukraine.

Our deepest appreciation to those contributing during these difficult times as we multiply our efforts to stave off the...

Publiée par American-Hellenic Chamber of Commerce sur Jeudi 19 mars 2020

Critics say it is part of a PR effort to lobby governments to loosen tobacco controls.

They also point out that tobacco use significantly increases the risk of serious illness or death from COVID-19.

'We did not seek any publicity'

Others, meanwhile, claim it contravenes the World Health Organization (WHO) Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (FCTC), a treaty that came into force in 2005 to protect people from the effects of tobacco consumption.

Both Philip Morris International and Imperial Tobacco denied any wrongdoing and said authorities had asked for their help.

“Imperial Tobacco Ukraine, as a prominent employer in Kyiv, was asked to donate one ventilator to the hospital by the regional authority and other local groups," the company said in a statement to Euronews.

"The business was happy to do so and did not seek any publicity. It is clear that no regulations have been breached and to be criticized for agreeing to support the Kyiv community in these challenging and unprecedented times is a disgrace.”

Nataliya Bondarenko, external affairs director at Philip Morris Ukraine, denied the company's donations breach the FCTC.

She also claimed Ukraine's president, Volodymyr Zelenskyy, had asked business leaders to help during COVID-19.

”FCTC does not forbid interactions between commercial operators and government organisations,” she told Euronews, referring to the company's actions in Ukraine, Romania and Greece.

“It does recommend parties to the FCTC act in accordance with the national law to protect public health policies with regards to tobacco control from commercial and other vested interests of the tobacco industry.

"This provision implies that regulators should act with impartiality and transparency. Our donation was done in full compliance with the law, demonstrating our integrity and transparency.”

'Up to its usual tricks'

Dr Mary Assunta, head of global research and advocacy at the Global Center for Good Governance in Tobacco Control, works specifically on international tobacco control policy. She said the donations contravene two provisions of FCTC.

“The FCTC is a legally binding treaty, and while almost all countries have ratified it, many face challenges from the tobacco industry when they implement it. However, about 60 countries have banned or have restrictions on tobacco-related donations.

“Currently, many governments are vulnerable because they lack funds to fight the pandemic. Companies such as Philip Morris are exploiting the pandemic to donate money to organisations and governments. It is part of their strategy to repair their image and gain access to politicians.”

Dr Mateusz Zatoński, from the University of Bath's Tobacco Control Research Group (TCRG), said tobacco firms have been particularly active with donations during COVID-19.

“The tobacco industry is up to its usual tricks by claiming it supports governments during the pandemic, while at the same time interfering with what those governments are doing to strengthen tobacco control,” said Zatoński, who recently published on the subject in the international medical journal Tobacco Control.

“These donations are a way for the tobacco industry to portray itself as a model corporate citizen and a legitimate partner to policymakers," said Zatoński. "While simultaneously making misleading claims that new tobacco control policies, or anything that can hurt their business, cause adverse social and economic consequences. Philanthropic activity helps give a cachet of credibility to such misleading claims.

“We often see tobacco companies giving money to organisations with political connections, because it can be a way for them to facilitate contact with policymakers in the future,” he said.

What does the small print say?

The Convention Secretariat of the FCTC — a watchdog of the treaty that is separate from WHO — said such donations contravene the agreement, which has been ratified by more than 180 countries worldwide.

“The Convention Secretariat is aware of the tobacco industry’s donations to highlight its ‘corporate social responsibility activities.’

"In actuality, these donations contravene two articles of the WHO FCTC: 13 and 5.3."

Article 13 of the FCTC says that tobacco donations to “organizations, such as community, health, welfare or environmental organizations, either directly or through other entities,” should be prohibited because such contributions aim to “promote a tobacco product or tobacco use either directly or indirectly”.

The secretariat further elaborates, calling such donations “aiming at the promotion of tobacco consumption, is a marketing as well as a public relations strategy”.

“Today, the tobacco industry is once again taking advantage of the vulnerable situation of many of our parties, offering its ‘philanthropic help’ through donations of money, personal protective equipment, ventilators, and other resources, in an effort to make the industry look good and enhance its reputation.”

The link between smoking and COVID-19

Beyond the detail of the treaty, others highlight the fact tobacco firms are donating help to fight a disease that is suspected to be worsened by smoking.

Two experts told Euronews more research is needed but that there is a link between smoking and severe COVID-19.

“Tobacco use, like COPD (chronic obstructive pulmonary disease), hypertension, diabetes, and cardiovascular disease all significantly increase risk of critical illness and death in COVID-19," wrote Henry Brandon, who recently had a study about COPD and severe coronavirus published in the peer-reviewed journal Respiratory Medicine.

"Smoking in all forms can also result in direct lung inflammation and damage which can predispose to severe COVID-19.

"As such, it is strongly advisable to limit tobacco use, including vaping.”

Russell G Buhr, assistant professor of medicine at the University of California Los Angeles' Division of Pulmonary & Critical Care also confirmed a connection between smoking and severe COVID-19.

Ukraine's 'powerful tobacco lobby'

Philip Morris International donated around €350,000 to the privately-funded charity Health for All in Ukraine to fight the virus. Imperial Tobacco helped sponsor a lung ventilator in Kyiv.

Smoking rates and tobacco manufacturing are decreasing in Ukraine. However, tobacco companies still have a powerful tobacco lobby in the parliament and government, according to NGO Advocacy Center LIFE.

It says donations are not made only during COVID-19.

Lilia Olefir, executive director of LIFE, told Euronews that tobacco companies such as Philip Morris have a substantial influence on the country.

They often use this to pressure the government, she claimed. She said a tobacco company threatened to shut down its production in Ukraine last year due to a new law increasing tobacco taxation.

Zelenskyy ended up vetoing the law and this is an example of how the companies operate in Ukraine, said Olefir.

She is worried the donations during the COVID-19 pandemic not only help tobacco companies rebrand themselves but also give them political goodwill and influence.

Olefir said privately-funded charities such as Health for All can be a link between tobacco companies and the government, which should be avoided.

Sergei Shevchuk, the head of the Health for All, previously chairman of the Ukrainian government's committee on health, maternity and childhood, has expressed gratitude for the donation from Philip Morris Ukraine.

Olefir claimed the donation violated laws in Ukraine.

“But the authorities here in Ukraine are not enforcing it," she said. "These tobacco companies will continue to exploit our weak system in Ukraine as long as they can.”

But Philip Morris hit back saying "ideologically driven groups" were using the crisis to “promote their rhetoric”.

“Our donation to Health for All is being used to procure personal protective equipment for the medical professionals who are relentlessly fighting the COVID-19 spread in Ukraine,” said Bondarenko from Philip Morris Ukraine.

“Protecting people, families, and communities is what matters at this time. Philip Morris Ukraine has not sought publicity for these donations.

"We are saddened that ideologically driven groups are using the current global pandemic to promote their rhetoric and, in doing so, potentially preventing Ukrainian healthcare structures from receiving vital support.”

Euronews asked health ministries in Ukraine and Greece to comment on this article but they had not responded by the time of publication. Romania did not respond to our specific questions but said it had not registered any donations from tobacco firms during the COVID-19 pandemic.