Tobacco industry found to put workers at risk during COVID-19 pandemic
26 June 2020, Lusaka—In April 2020, after Zambia reported its first COVID-19 death, the Tobacco Free Association of Zambia carried out snap visits to small scale farming communities sponsored by Japan Tobacco International (JTI) in Eastern Province. The objective was to undertake a spot check on child labour and the conditions of women workers on tobacco farms during the COVID-19 epidemic.
We found that tobacco farms had remained fully operational throughout the pandemic. While the government had mandated mask-wearing outside the home, only some tobacco workers were wearing one. Others either did not have a mask or were wearing one incorrectly, increasing their risk of COVID-19 transmission. In addition, children were exposed directly to tobacco leaves, putting them at risk from health harms related to pesticide exposure and green tobacco sickness. These risks shared one common factor: children and women working in tobacco fields were not given protective equipment by JTI, the company that sponsors the tobacco farms. Following these visits, the global watchdog STOP published an article exposing the situation in Zambia and warned of tobacco industry workers at risk of COVID-19 in several other countries.
Despite this glaring negligence, JTI is now taking credit for pumping US$300,000 (equivalent of K5.4million) into purchasing an assortment of preventive supplies against the spread of COVID-19 in Kaoma in Western Province and Chipata District in Eastern Province. These two districts are the epicenter of small-scale tobacco growing in the country.
The purported gesture from JTI is a classic tobacco industry tactic: using a crisis like the COVID-19 pandemic to influence tobacco control policy. Zambia government officials have directly received donations, which helps JTI create a perception that it means well, when its neglect of farmers demonstrates the opposite.
We expect to see more examples of this type of tobacco industry behaviour as we count down towards the tabling of the draft 2018 Tobacco and Nicotine Products Control Bill, which is due to come before Parliament before the end of 2020.
The tobacco industry clearly is determined to delay, frustrate, hinder and halt the Bill from being enacted into law. According to STOP, the industry is lobbying governments for preferential treatment and is finding other ways to take advantage of the pandemic.
However, as civil society, we are determined to ensure that the Bill is passed in line with the interests of public health in Zambia and the aspirations of the World Health Organization Framework Convention on Tobacco Control.
COVID continues to spread across Africa and the tobacco industry has almost certainly made the pandemic worse. The WHO has already advised that smoking could facilitate spread of COVID-19 and evidence has emerged that it may lead to more severe progression of the disease. Now is not the time to let tobacco companies buy their way into Zambia’s health policy with gestures that mask the tobacco epidemic they caused long before COVID-19.
For more information, contact Brenda Chitindi, Tobacco Free Association of Zambia – Executive Director, firstname.lastname@example.org