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Picture: 123RF/GIN SANDERS
Picture: 123RF/GIN SANDERS

The government’s efforts to limit the influence of the tobacco industry weakened during the coronavirus pandemic, according to a report released on Tuesday by the global tobacco industry watchdog STOP.

The 2021 Global Tobacco Industry Interference Index found SA’s score deteriorated by 6 points, from 58 in 2020 to 64 this year. The higher the score, the greater the tobacco industry interference in public health policies.

The report analysed reports from civil society organisations in 80 countries to gauge their success in meeting commitments to the World Health Organisation (WHO) Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (FCTC) and concluded that the industry exploited the pandemic to step up its influence in 31 nations, including SA.

Though smoking [was] identified as a risk factor for severe Covid-19, for the tobacco industry it was business as usual,” said report co-author Mary Assunta, head of global research and advocacy at the Global Center for Good Governance in Tobacco Control. The industry successfully lobbied to keep tobacco products available during lockdowns — persuading several governments to categorise them as essential — and took legal action to challenge SA’s ban on cigarette sales in the early stages of the pandemic, she said.

“It is worth noting that the countries that faced most interference are also countries that are lagging far behind in their overall tobacco control measures,” Assunta said in a virtual briefing, citing SA, Guatemala, Tanzania and Zambia as examples.

SA ranked joint 25th from the bottom, tying with Ukraine and Mozambique, and scored third-worst among the 14 African countries surveyed, faring better only than Tanzania (73) and Zambia (78), partly because of the continued delays in passing laws aimed at regulating new tobacco products such as e-cigarettes.

The draft control of Tobacco Products and Electronic Delivery Systems Bill was released for public comment more than three years ago, in May 2018, but has yet to be submitted to parliament.

Globally, tobacco companies took advantage of the pandemic to increase their influence by stepping up their charitable donations to the healthcare sector, and working more closely with law enforcement agencies, said Assunta.

The report described the collaboration between the SA Police Service, Sars and tobacco companies to tackle the illicit trade in cigarettes, which boomed after the government imposed a sales ban on cigarettes, as an “unnecessary interaction”. It criticised the lack of transparency about meetings and engagements between tobacco companies and government, noting that there were no legal guidelines in place requiring disclosure. While SA political parties are required to disclose their sources of funding, there is no prohibition on accepting contributions from tobacco companies, it added.

The WHO estimates 8-million lives are lost to tobacco each year. It is due to hold its ninth meeting of the conference of the parties next week to discuss how to improve implementation of the FCTC. Decisions made by the conference of the parties are binding on the signatories to the FCTC, which include SA.

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