Tobacco Companies Tried to Profit Off Virus, Lawmaker Group Says

A group of U.S. lawmakers, including Senator Elizabeth Warren, has sent letters to two of the world’s largest tobacco companies alleging they attempted to “profit off the back of a global health crisis.”

The letters sent to British American Tobacco Plc and Philip Morris International Inc., dated Dec. 16 and Dec. 18, respectively, cite a Stanford University study that found tobacco companies promoted their products during the pandemic on social media platforms popular with young adults by offering free gifts that had been hard to find, like hand sanitizer, toilet paper and masks. Some ads even pitched the products as good for stress relief during Covid-19, the letter said.

Politicians including Senator Richard Durbin and Senator Richard Blumenthal called the campaigns “reminiscent of decades of false and misleading advertising about cigarettes about tobacco companies.”

A similar letter was also sent to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and the Federal Trade Commission, which need to combat these kinds of “dangerous advertisements,” the lawmaker group said. The FDA said it received the letter and will respond directly to Warren. The FTC also confirmed it has received the letter and declined to comment further.

A Philip Morris spokesman said the company has received the letter and is reviewing its contents to formulate a response. “To be clear, PMI’s core message is: For adults who use nicotine in any form it is best to quit completely,” he said.

BAT said it continued to communicate with adult nicotine users about its range of cigarette alternatives during the pandemic, in line with its marketing principles.

“Social media is an important channel to make adult smokers aware of the alternative products that are available to them,” a BAT spokeswoman said in an email, adding the company carries out age verification and directs marketing to adults who are looking for an alternative to smoking.

Overall, youth tobacco usage is on the decline this year. The number of middle- and high-school students who use tobacco products fell 28% in 2020 to about 4.5 million, according to a report from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention using survey data collected from Jan. 16 to March 16. The declines were driven largely by lower use of e-cigarettes, cigars and smokeless tobacco products.

Despite this decline, in 2020 nearly one in four U.S. high school students and approximately one in 15 middle school students still reported current use of any tobacco product.

©2020 Bloomberg L.P.

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