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2020 – A tumultuous year for tobacco control

28 December 2020

As we come to the end of 2020, to say it was challenging and disruptive, is an understatement. While our ministries of health had their hands full attending to COVID-19 emergencies, the tobacco industry took full advantage of the pandemic to further its business. We recount some of the brazen industry tactics for the year (thumbs down) that was inflicted on the ASEAN region. But it is heartening that we also had achievements to advance tobacco control in the region and internationally, and to these we give our thumbs up.

A quick review of 2020:

1.     PMI, BAT and JTI exploited the COVID-19 pandemic to conduct CSR activities Across the ASEAN region, tobacco companies handed out PPE and medical equipment to hospitals, health workers and law enforcement.
2.     Harm reduction groups became more vocal to champion their cause and legitimize new tobacco products ENDS front groups such as CAPHRAECST and KABAR championed harm reduction in the media, through webinars and meetings leading towards legitimize vaping products.
3.     The PMI funded Foundation for a Smoke-Free World (FSFW) released a new report on the tobacco industry In September FSFW released, Tobacco Transformation Index, which according to TobaccoTactics, describes its objectives to measuring the corporate transformation of the tobacco industry. The report was launched in conjunction with the Global Tobacco and Nicotine Forum, a tobacco industry/ENDS sponsored event. Bulk of the tobacco industry’s main profits still come from its cigarettes sales.
4.     Indonesia: remains friendly towards the tobacco industry Indonesia still allows tobacco advertising and sponsorship, remains a non party to the WHO FCTC. ENDs were legalised through taxation.
5.     Lao PDR: Investment License Agreement between government and Imperial Tobacco Group is still in place The 25-year (2001-2026) government joint venture with the Imperial Tobacco Group remains valid, which caps tax increases and provides incentives to the tobacco industry.
6.     Malaysia: Tobacco industry collaborated with the media on content Tobacco advertising has morphed into news articles, opinion pieces, TV interviews and webinars promoting pro-industry messages effectively promoting the companies. Tobacco companies don’t declare their sponsored programs. LINC Astro Awani telecast a webinar sponsored by Philip Morris Malaysia.
7.     Philippines: IQOS is introduced for sale PMI introduced IQOS in the Philippines by opening 4 stores to sell the product.
8.     Indonesia: NGO received funds from PMI funded FSFW The PMI funded FSFW gave a grant to an NGO, Yayasan Pena Bulu, to conduct research on economic costs and health issues associated with tobacco morbidity.
9.    Vietnam: PMI applying pressure to legalize sale of HTPs PMI is urging the government to legalize the sale of new generation cigarettes (such as IQOS) claiming the Vietnamese adults’ are demanding them, that the US-FDA has authorized their sale as a “modified risk tobacco product (MRTP)” and that there are illegal sale of these products in the country anyway causing the government to lose tax revenue.

Counter action

SEATCA released the Asia and ASEAN Tobacco Industry Interference indexes  In releasing the Asian and ASEAN Tobacco Industry Interference Indexes, SEATCA called for a whole of government approach to tackling industry interference and implementing WHO FCTC Article 5.3.
US lawmakers have contacted PMI and BAT for profiting off the COVID epidemic  In December, US lawmakers wrote to PMI and BAT about their profiting from the COVID epidemic based on a Stanford University report. Among other things, PMI and BAT must provide copies of, or links to, all advertising content released by them for tobacco, e-cigarette, or other nicotine products since March 1, 2020 including internal documents on the companies’ promotional strategies during the COVID-19 pandemic and the publication of any COVID-19-related advertisements. The information must be sent by December 30, 2020.
Brunei, Cambodia, Lao PDR, Thailand, Singapore These countries remained strong and did not cave-in to pressure to rescind their ban on ENDS/HTPs.
Cambodian advocates appealed to the German international assistance agency (GIZ) to remove JTI from associating itself with it This sponsorship is a violation of WHO FCTC Article 5.3 and with advocacy conducted by Cambodia Movement for Health and SEATCA resulted in the GIZ removing any association of their name with JTI.
Myanmar Ministry of Health and Sports adopted a Directive on WHO FCTC Article 5.3 Myanmar Ministry of Health and Sports adopted a Directive on WHO FCTC Article 5.3 to guide officials when interacting with the tobacco industry.
Singapore – Plain packaging of tobacco went into force Starting July 1 2020, all tobacco packs sold in Singapore require standardized packaging
Thai Ministry of Public Health refused participation in a research on ENDS, whose Hong Kong based sponsor offers no details Ministry of Public Health Thailand rejected participation in a research on ENDS, which was funded by a group based in Hong Kong, Alliance for Trade Integrity, which provides no details or record on any work they have done.
Vietnam: WHO-Vietnam provided facts about the harms of new generation products WHO-Vietnam warned that heated tobacco products (HTPs) emit toxic smoke, which has many of the same toxins as normal tobacco smoke and harmful to both users and those around them. It is important to clarify these products are not risk free.

Exposing the industry is an important step towards stopping its unethical practices. Addressing industry interference through whole-of-government approach is more effective. We look towards 2021 with hope and anticipation!