A river uprooted, gain of fishermen. The tobacco industry has made the COVID-19 health crisis an opportunity to promote its nicotine products, mitigate perceived harm to tobacco, and enhance its public image internationally. The strategies carried out for this purpose have been multiple and varied and have been watered with millions and millions of euros from foundations or directly from tobacco companies.
Few imagined that a global epidemic due to a respiratory virus that can cause serious damage to the lungs could benefit, in some way, the tobacco companies, which produce and sell products that cause progressive damage to these organs, along with many other harmful effects on the lungs. body. However, tobacco companies have been able to use the situation to their advantage.
The paradoxical “protection” of tobacco / nicotine against COVID-19
At the beginning of the pandemic, many media throughout the world echoed a paradoxical hypothesis: “Could nicotine protect against COVID-19?” Some preliminary studies in countries such as China or France seemed to indicate, at that time, that smokers suffered less frequently from this disease in its severe form than the general population. However, the scandals in this matter were not long in coming. Journalists Stéphane Horel and Ties Keyzer have recently published in the medical journal The British Medical Journal (TheBMJ) a investigative report detailing how the tobacco industry was involved in supporting and disseminating the hypothesis of protective nicotine against the disease caused by the new coronavirus.
As Horel and Keyzer explain, two articles preliminariespreprints) that gave force to the idea of beneficial nicotine against COVID-19 appeared in April 2020. They were the result of an investigation led by the doctor Zahir Amoura, from the Pitié-Salpêtrière hospital in Paris. They documented that around 5% of COVID-19 patients were smokers (a much lower frequency than expected by the percentage of smokers in the general population) and that “nicotine substitutes could be an effective treatment for acute infections such as COVID-19 “.
These preprints -articles that have not been reviewed by other scientists- received a multitude of scientific criticism for speculating on the results obtained with great methodological limitations and significant biases. Soon, it was discovered that the laboratory of one of the authors, Jean-Pierre Changeux, had received large sums of money from the tobacco industry (specifically the Council for Tobacco Research) until at least 1998. When journalists Changeux was asked about his relationship with the tobacco industry, and he denied having received any “direct or indirect” funding since the 1990s.
For now, no current relationship of the tobacco companies with the authors of the previous studies has been demonstrated. However, this has not been the case for the controversial scientific article which was published in July 2020 in the scientific journal European Respiratory Journal. In this article, the researchers stated that smokers had a lower risk of contracting coronavirus than non-smokers and that “smoking was not associated with an adverse outcome” in patients hospitalized for this disease. Again, this article received numerous scientific criticisms who questioned its validity.
The conclusions of this study were radically opposed to the scientific review published by the WHO a month earlier stating that “at the time of this review, the available evidence suggests that smoking is associated with greater severity of illness and death in patients hospitalized for COVID-19.” Other scientific review on the matter, published in August 2020, explained that “for now, the data supporting paradoxical claims about smokers is limited and questionable.”
Despite the criticism, which would lead to retracting the article in the magazine European Respiratory Journal last March 2021 it was not its poor scientific quality, but the lack of ethics: it was discovered that two of the authors had concealed that they had conflicts of interest due to receiving financing from the tobacco and electronic cigarette industry. Two other authors, with proven relationships with the tobacco industry in the past, have also not expressed a conflict of interest and it has not been possible to demonstrate, for now, that they received funding from it.
The tobacco industry’s multi-million dollar investments to turn the pandemic around
The WHO had already warned throughout the pandemic that the tobacco industry had established several strategies to promote its image and its products against COVID-19. Among them, he highlighted three tactics:
On the one hand, the distortion of knowledge about the true risk that smoking poses to suffer a serious COVID-19: the tobacco companies have allocated large amounts of money to researchers to study the hypothesis of protective nicotine against COVID-19 and disseminate the results in favor of this idea. Only the Foundation for the Smoke-Free World (founded by Philip Morris) allocated 900,000 euros in June 2020 to studies “to better understand the association between smoking and / or nicotine use, COVID-19 infection and clinical outcome. “.
The WHO explained: “These studies, some of which have shown serious methodological flaws, attempt to minimize tobacco use as a risk factor for a serious and potentially fatal disease.”
They also applied the uuse of the pandemic to promote their public image as beneficial companies for society: Historically, the tobacco industry has used social responsibility tactics to wash its public image, advance its economic goals, and gain the trust of the public. The WHO is against such practices because of their “inherent contradiction” and because the economic and human damages caused by tobacco are far greater than these socially responsible activities. For this reason, it has asked governments on several occasions to prohibit these actions.
In countries like Italy, South Africa and Brazil, the tobacco industry pressured governments to consider tobacconists and vape shops as “essential” businesses. Tobacco companies have also made important donations to numerous countries: respirators, hydroalcoholic gels, money, alcohol, personal protective equipment, food … Juan Miguel Rey-Pino, professor of Social Marketing at the University of Granada, explained to the Agency Efe how the tobacco companies were publicized through social networks and influencers through contests or disseminating tips for confinement and de-escalation.
Third, promoting the online sale of tobacco products, e-cigarettes and other smoking devices through aggressive marketing. Numerous advertising campaigns in different countries about these items. For example, in Guatemala, Romania, Italy, Spain and other states, the two largest tobacco companies, Philip Morris and British American Tobacco, used the “Stay at home” label, used by governments and health authorities on social media, to advertise smokeless tobacco products and e-cigarettes.
In the United States, these types of products were promoted by giving away masks or offering discounts associated with COVID-19 and some companies directly made illegal health claims. It was the case of the Bidi Vapor company that stated on Instagram that “one Bidi stick a day keeps the pulmonologist away.”