The tobacco industry stepped up corporate social responsibility activities during the COVID-19 pandemic, exploiting opportunities provided by the infectious disease to engage with government bodies and capitalised on the vulnerability of several African countries facing a shortage of resources, a new report has stated.
The Africa Regional Tobacco Industry Interference Index released Wednesday by the Africa Tobacco Control Alliance (ATCA) stated that the industry greatly influenced government policies in Nigeria, Zambia, and Tanzania.
Of the 14 countries which the report focused on, Zambia and Tanzania topped the list with the highest level of tobacco industry interference in almost all indicators.
“Despite countries putting procedures in place to guide officials to report all meetings with the tobacco industry, a lack of transparency which facilitated deals with the tobacco industry persisted, and was most significant in Zambia, Senegal, Mozambique, and Cote d’Ivoire,” the report stated.
“The tobacco industry, in at least five countries, engaged in high levels of unnecessary interactions with governments. These took the form of trade and partnerships, enforcement of laws, social activities and economic development agenda.”
Article 5.3 of the WHO Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (FCTC) seeks to protect tobacco control policies from being influenced by the tobacco industry. It obliges Parties “to protect their public health policies related to tobacco control from commercial and other vested interests of the tobacco industry.”
The ATCA report shows a low level of tobacco industry in policy development in Kenya and Uganda. Countries such as Zambia, Nigeria, Tanzania, and Ethiopia experienced the most industry interference.
In Nigeria, for instance, the Federal Ministry of Industry, Trade and Investment received a tobacco industry proposal on the need for a ‘Policy on Conventional Tobacco and Non-Combusted Alternatives to Tobacco Smoking.’ Also, the Standards Organisation of Nigeria, a government agency, involved the tobacco industry in consultations and drafting of policies on tobacco control.
According to the WHO, there is a fundamental and irreconcilable conflict between the tobacco industry’s interests and public health policy interests. Article of the FCTC 13 calls for a ban on tobacco-related CSR activities and Article 5.3 provides guidelines on how to denormalise them.
The report said tobacco companies handed scholarships to poor students, funded poverty alleviation projects, and supported governments during natural disasters.
For instance, in March last year, the Lagos State Agricultural Development Authority (LSADA) officials received 250 kilogramme coal smoking kilns from the BAT Nigeria (BATN) Foundation. At that event, the Lagos State Commissioner for Agriculture commended BATN Foundation for its “continuous support to agriculture in Lagos State.” The Foundation in July 2020, further partnered with the Abia State FADAMA to distribute certified rice seedlings to smallholder farmers.
The report further stated that the BATN Foundation partnered with the National Youth Service Corps (NYSC) in its Skills Acquisition and Entrepreneurship Development (SAED) Programme which began in 2019. Under the scheme, the youth corps members and young people with viable agri-business ideas are supported with equity-free capital and other associated support they may require to scale up their businesses. In the 2021 edition, the Foundation continued its CSR with the Corps through a financial commitment of N16 million in cash and business support for grantees.
“At a time when African governments are working tirelessly to contain the COVID-19 pandemic, the index reveals that the tobacco industry exploited this situation to undertake Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) initiatives, providing resources to countries as part of COVID-19 response support,” said Leonce Sessou, ATCA’s Executive Secretary.
“This presented a great opportunity for the industry to frame itself as a partner that is genuinely concerned with the world’s problems, even though it continues to aggressively market its deadly products and fiercely fight tobacco control policies that save lives.
“The FCTC in Article 1(g) highlights that such contributions fall within the definition of tobacco sponsorship and should be prohibited as part of a comprehensive ban, because the aim, effect or likely effect of such a contribution is to promote a tobacco product or tobacco use either directly or indirectly.”
‘Conflict of interest’
All parties to the WHO FCTC are required by Article 5.3 Guidelines to ensure no conflicts of interest with the tobacco industry for all government officials and employees, and establish rules in protecting public health policies from interference from the industry.
Findings from the report show both current and former public officials working for and in the interest of the tobacco industry
In Nigeria, it said, there are instances of current and former public officials working for and in the interest of the tobacco industry.
“The industry influences public policy through what is dubbed a ‘revolving door,’ where former or current government officials take up jobs in the tobacco industry and vice versa.
“In Nigeria, former government officials are currently holding positions in the tobacco industry. For example, the current Chairman of BATNF used to be the Minister of Trade and Industry. Also, the Minister for Foreign Affairs from 2014 to 2015 is currently the Chairman for International Tobacco Company.”
While Kolawole Jamodu, the current BATNF chairman, was Nigeria’s Minister of Industry between 2001 and 2003; Aminu Wali, the chairman of International Tobacco Company, served as Foreign Affairs Minister in 2014.
Mr Sessou said while the index suggests simple and practical solutions; governments can protect their health policies from tobacco industry interference by establishing a code of conduct guiding interactions between government officials and the industry, and ensuring strict implementation of such codes where they already exist.
“Where codes of conduct exist, regular training and awareness-raising on tobacco industry interference should be undertaken to help keep public officials updated and to maintain their commitment.
“Finally, governments can ensure that under no circumstance does the tobacco industry get to enjoy preferential treatment or undertake Corporate Social Responsibility activities which facilitate interference. It is time for governments to step up their political will and ensure that health policies are not derailed by the tobacco industry.”
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