New Year, Old Tactics: Tobacco Industry Predictions for 2021

New Year, Old Tactics: Tobacco Industry Predictions for 2021

No one could have predicted what 2020 would bring. Shortly after we celebrated the beginning of a new decade, the novel coronavirus swept across the globe and transformed daily life as we knew it. Despite the challenges COVID-19 imposed, STOP held strong to our commitment of shining a light on the tobacco industry.

Earlier this year, we unveiled an in-depth report that suggests Philip Morris International’s (PMI) survival depends on hooking a new generation of users, including youth, on its products. We exposed the industry’s targeting of youth on World No Tobacco Day, shone a spotlight on the sudden increase in tobacco sponsorship spending in F1 racing and illuminated how the industry aims to undermine track and trace systems.

We created detailed COVID-19 industry monitoring and policy briefs and launched our ultimate industry accountability campaign, Tobacco Pay Up. We hosted webinars for thousands of registrants, and in November, we released the 2020 Global Tobacco Industry Interference Index to highlight civil societies’ views on how countries were fighting back (or not) against industry interference in policy.

While we can’t predict how the pandemic will play out in the coming year, we can anticipate the moves the tobacco industry might make. STOP’s tobacco control experts share what they think we might see from the industry in 2021.

Exploitation of COVID-19 and UN Sustainable Development Goals

In 2020, we saw: An increase in so-called corporate social responsibility (CSR) activities. Tobacco companies gave personal protective equipment, medical supplies and money to governments sorely in need of them, knowing policymakers would be hard-pressed to turn them down. We also saw the tobacco industry use its CSR efforts to portray itself as a contributor to the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), when, in fact, it hinders nearly all of them. Tobacco companies and industry-funded entities such as the Foundation for a Smoke-Free World and its grantees offered funding in areas such as sustainable farming and science and innovation.

In 2021, we predict: Tobacco companies will likely continue their CSR push, and will keep seeking favors of or partnerships with governments—possibly even citing their recent CSR activities in their approaches. According to Debby Sy, Head of Global Public Policy and Strategies at the Global Center for Good Governance in Tobacco Control (GGTC), the tobacco industry may lobby for financial benefits like the relaxation or delay of tax hikes, even as governments struggle to sustain their economies during the pandemic. The good news, Sy says, is that we could also see civil society continuing to push back against these tactics by seeking accountability or advocating for tobacco tax increases.

Pushing of novel products

In 2020, we saw: Aggressive lobbying for the acceptance and promotion of new tobacco and nicotine products, with PMI using the U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s (FDA) ruling on its heated tobacco product (HTP), IQOS, to lobby for regulatory change. Tobacco companies also used the pandemic to promote their new products by creating branded masks and sanitizers.

In 2021, we predict: More launches of new products, promoted in ways that continue to attract young users, as we’ve seen in Mexico and Ukraine, says Emma Green, STOP Sr. Program Manager for The Union. Sophie Braznell, researcher at the Tobacco Control Research Group (TCRG) at the University of Bath, adds, “Judging by PMI’s 2019 annual report, it’s likely we’ll see international roll-out of PMI’s second HTP, TEEPS, after they’ve finished their consumer tests this year.”

Green also cautions of a push from the industry for governments to roll back regulations for novel products. For example, we may see PMI using 2020’s FDA ruling to further its harm reduction narrative, push for lower taxes and try to convince more countries to reverse HTP bans. “The industry has a history of funding—and promoting—its own misleading research. Given its aggressive lobbying for these new products, we expect more self-financed studies and PR campaigns to distract policymakers from the real issue: eight million deaths per year from tobacco use,” says Jorge Alday, Director at Vital Strategies.

Attempting to influence the FCTC & COP

In 2020, we saw: Research that suggested the industry was trying to insert itself into tobacco control conversations led by the WHO Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (FCTC) Conference of the Parties (COP). The global treaty to reduce the demand and supply of tobacco urges parties to not engage with the tobacco industry. But that didn’t stop the industry from attempting to appear aligned with the FCTC and its goals—possibly as a ploy to be seen as harm reduction advocates, despite continuing to make and sell hundreds of billions of cigarettes each year.

In 2021, we predict: “Certain factions may come together to push for a more coordinated campaign and have voices outside their echo chamber contribute,” says Karen Evans-Reeves, researcher at TCRG. In addition to seeing a more concerted effort to join the conversation around COP9 in November 2021, Sy adds that we could see more position papers and statements from the industry and its allies to convince COP9 to embrace its addictive novel products. COP delegates (including former and prospective delegates) could see invitations to industry-backed webinars, virtual events, plant tours and more.

Interference in governments’ selection of track and trace systems

In 2020, we saw: Notable challenges to track and trace systems, which help curb illicit tobacco trade by tracking tobacco from its point of manufacture to the point where all taxes have been paid. In May 2020, the South Africa Revenue Service (SARS) canceled its tender for a track and trace system amid tobacco industry opposition. And in Pakistan, a company with links to industry-developed Codentify track and trace technology was awarded the track and trace tender, though the tender was later canceled after legal challenges.

In 2021, we predict: Tobacco companies could intensify their attempts to undermine the implementation of independent and effective track and trace systems. The Protocol to Eliminate Illicit Trade in Tobacco Products aims to establish a global cigarette track and trace regime by 2023, which means tracking and tracing will be a key focus area for policymakers in the coming years. According to Tobacco Tactics Monitoring Coordinator Raouf Alebshehy and TCRG researcher Allen Gallagher, this means we’ll likely see an increase in tobacco industry interference in this area. Alebshehy and Gallagher also predict the industry is likely to continue using illicit trade as an opportunity to establish partnerships with governments, including funding and/or providing training for customs and law enforcement organizations. These activities undermine both the FCTC and the Protocol, falsely presenting tobacco companies as a solution to illicit trade.

New year, new opportunities

We look forward to the opportunities 2021 will bring to advance tobacco control and help save countless lives. Even during a pandemic, tobacco control has to persist. In fact, with the tobacco industry putting profits before workers’ well-being and lobbying for its own commercial interests over public health, it’s more important than ever.