Every Country Affected: The Tobacco Industry Used the COVID-19 Pandemic to Build Influence With Governments in 80 Countries

Civil society groups find clear increase in industry lobbying and donations

Indonesia, Japan, Switzerland and Dominican Republic least able to prevent industry meddling; Botswana, Chile, India and Spain among countries making progress

Read the press release in French and Spanish

New York, November 2, 2021 — A new report from tobacco industry watchdog STOP reveals that the tobacco industry embraced the COVID-19 pandemic as an opportunity to gain influence, meddle in life-saving health policies and secure preferential treatment. Reports from civil society organizations in 80 countries, analyzed in the Global Tobacco Industry Interference Index 2021, show that no country was immune to the industry’s efforts to use lobbying and donations, often connected to pandemic response, to its advantage.

“The tobacco industry’s behavior during COVID-19 wasn’t just business as usual—this research suggests it’s been far worse in terms of scale and impact,” said Mary Assunta, PhD, Head of Global Research and Advocacy for the Global Center for Good Governance in Tobacco Control, a partner in STOP and lead author of the Index. “In the middle of a pandemic, health should be the primary consideration in all policy decisions, but it was often sidelined in favor of the industry’s commercial interests. Where policy isn’t well protected, more lives will be lost to tobacco and post-COVID economic recovery may be impacted, with higher health costs and potentially less tax revenue to fund recovery.”

During the pandemic many governments were short of public health resources. Some, like Botswana, Spain, Chile and India stepped up efforts to protect health policy, but others accepted the tobacco industry’s donations or lobbying. Increases in tobacco taxes, for example, were delayed and the industry was able to open up new markets for electronic products. Among countries in the 2021 Index report, 18 governments improved how they shield themselves from industry influence while 31 governments deteriorated in their efforts.

Findings in the new report include:

  • No region is immune and within each region, there are significant differences in scores between the best and worst performing governments.
  • Globally, Brunei, New Zealand and the U.K. rank best overall—though even these countries faced increased industry attempts to influence policy.
  • Although tobacco is an addictive and harmful product, at least ten governments deemed the tobacco industry and cigarettes to be “essential” during the pandemic or a vital part of their economic recovery efforts, including Bangladesh, Brazil, Jordan, Malaysia, New Zealand, Peru and Sudan.
  • Countries that have not signed the global treaty, the World Health Organization Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (FCTC), face high levels of industry meddling. These include Argentina, the Dominican Republic, Indonesia, Switzerland and the U.S.A.
  • Industry activity was linked to delays in the implementation of tobacco control laws in countries including Bolivia, Ethiopia, Georgia, Guatemala, South Africa, Tanzania, Turkey and South Africa faced legal action for trying to limit tobacco sales during the pandemic.
  • The industry successfully lobbied governments to sell new products in countries including Egypt, Kenya, Lebanon and Spain.
  • At least 11 countries that received donations compromised on taxing the industry’s products, including Argentina, Czech Republic, Indonesia, Malaysia, Myanmar, Pakistan, Paraguay, Poland, Tanzania, Turkey and Zambia.
  • At least six countries that ban or restrict tobacco-related corporate social responsibility (CSR) activities still accepted donations from the industry during the pandemic, including Kenya, Myanmar and the Philippines.

The tobacco industry’s use of CSR donations that target pandemic response stands in direct contrast to the importance of stopping tobacco use. Since the start of the pandemic, independent studies have found that smokers are more likely to develop severe COVID-19 as compared to non-smokers. Tobacco use is a known risk factor for a range of chronic conditions that also place people at greater risk from COVID-19.

Resisting industry influence

The Index highlights progress in 18 countries since the last report, and in countries new to the Index this year. Botswana published its tobacco control law, limiting interaction between the government and the tobacco industry and prohibiting partnerships with and giving incentives to the industry. The new law applies to the entire government, setting a standard for the rest of the world to embrace.

In India, the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare adopted a code of conduct aimed at preventing industry interference and conflicts of interest among public officials and all departments within the Ministry’s jurisdiction.

And Spain worked to reduce interactions between government officials and the tobacco industry and government officials’ participation in industry CSR activities. Spain’s efforts were also strengthened among regional health authorities.

“While the pandemic wreaked havoc around the world and the global economy suffered, two of the world’s biggest tobacco companies reported earnings before tax of more than $10 billion each,” concluded Dr. Assunta. “Governments must hold this industry accountable and it must not be permitted to meddle in policy. It is time for all countries to ban tobacco-related CSR activities.”

Please contact the STOP press office for more information or to speak to a STOP spokesperson.


About STOP
STOP is a global tobacco industry watchdog whose mission is to expose the tobacco industry strategies and tactics that undermine public health. STOP is funded by Bloomberg Philanthropies and comprised of a partnership between The Tobacco Control Research Group at the University of Bath, The Global Center for Good Governance in Tobacco Control (GGTC), the International Union Against Tuberculosis and Lung Disease (The Union) and Vital Strategies. For more information, visit exposetobacco.org.