Big Tobacco Is Funding Opposition to Global Covid Vaccine Access

Tobacco companies are bankrolling a group that is working to defeat an intellectual property waiver. And the companies have a direct interest in doing so.

Sarah Lazare

British American Tobacco p.l.c. Globe House, Temple Place, central London. Nick Ansell/PA Images via Getty Images

Major tobacco companies including British American Tobacco and Japan Tobacco International are funding an anti-regulatory, libertarian-leaning organization, Consumer Choice Center (CCC), that is working to restrict global Covid-19 vaccine access. CCC is mobilizing to defeat a proposal at the World Trade Organization to suspend intellectual property rules related to Covid-19 tests, treatments and vaccines.

The WTO proposal is aimed at expanding global access to life-saving Covid-19 products, and reversing staggering international inequities. By funding its opposition, critics say the tobacco industry is undermining public health, which will have impacts not only during this pandemic — but the next one.

The CCC supports a broad array of deregulatory measures, and the tobacco industry is, famously, a champion of deregulation. So the industry’s funding of the organization could be motivated by other policy priorities. But the tobacco industry does have an interest in opposing any loosening of global intellectual property rules: Tobacco companies rely on intellectual property rules to profit from their products, they have previously used the WTO’s intellectual property rules to argue against public health measures, and some are even trying to develop Covid-19 vaccines themselves.

In light of these interests, Big Tobacco’s support for the CCC is rankling one public health activist. It is one more example of how these companies are willing to sacrifice public health goals to be able to continue to aggressively market and utilize these rules to block meaningful public health measures that would affect their bottom line,” Melinda St. Louis, director of Public Citizen’s Global Trade Watch, a Washington, D.C.-based organization that monitors corporate power, tells In These Times.

The CCC was founded in 2017 and calls itself a consumer advocacy group supporting lifestyle freedom, innovation, privacy, science, and consumer choice.” While it is headquartered in Washington, D.C., the organization says it is active around the world.

The group does not hide its strong opposition to the proposal to suspend intellectual property rules, which is commonly referred to as a TRIPS waiver — a reference to the WTO’s Agreement on Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights, which sets global intellectual property rules. The TRIPS waiver was first proposed by India and South Africa in October 2020, in hopes of freeing up intellectual property and technological know-how so that countries across the world could manufacture vital Covid-19 products. (Some researchers estimate that there are 120 facilities in Asia, Africa, and Latin America that have the ability to make mRNA vaccines if the information for how to do so were shared with them.)

But the proposal has faced stiff opposition from the pharmaceutical industry, the European Union, Switzerland and the United Kingdom, and inaction from the Biden administration, despite U.S. Trade Representative Katherine Tai’s statement of support for an intellectual property waiver for vaccines in May of 2021. Now, the WTO is weighing a new, watered down intellectual property proposal that critics have slammed for its geographic exclusions, imposition of new barriers to generics, and exclusion of tests and treatments. Negotiations over the intellectual property changes are heating up ahead of a WTO ministerial conference June 12-15.

The CCC is not shy about registering its opposition to any meaningful intellectual property waiver. As recently as May 30, staffers of the organization published an article in The Parliament titled, TRIPS waiver will cost us decades of progress,” in which they argue, By removing patent protection, crucial incentives to develop new ground-breaking innovations will be lost.” Staffers have condemned the Biden administration’s May 2021 statement of support for an intellectual property waiver for vaccines, advocated for Germany to oppose a TRIPS waiver, and called for Canada to oppose the proposed TRIPS waiver. The group is also part of a coalition of global organizations that seeks to uphold international intellectual property rules for vaccines, proclaiming, Far from being a barrier to sharing knowledge, IP is fundamental to creating it.”

The organization has been especially active in Europe, where it organizes the Innovation, Brands and Intellectual Property — The Future of Europe” group, which it says consists of over 30 MEPs representing most EU Member states.” According to Corporate Europe Observatory, a watchdog organization, most of these Members of the European Parliament hail from far-right parties.” 

In at least one case, the CCC appears to have been involved in an effort to advance opposition to the TRIPS waiver among sympathetic MEPs. The Corporate Europe Observatory noted in May 2021:

An Italian news website recently revealed examples of the Consumer Choice Center’s campaigning against the TRIPS waiver. On February 24, ten MEPs (including members of the Innovation, Brands and Intellectual Property’ cross-party group) sent a letter to Stella Kyriakides, European Commissioner for Health, asking the Commission to firmly oppose the TRIPs waiver. Remarkably, the letter from the MEPs contains wording that is identical to that used by the Consumer Choice Center. Was the MEP letter written by the CCC or did the MEPs borrow’ from the CCC? The Italian news website reports that on 24 April 2021, MEPs (again including members of the cross-party group) sent a letter to European Commissioners Vestager and Gabriel with the same message.

When asked about the influence of the CCC, Jaume Vidal, an Amsterdam-based senior policy advisor for European Projects at Health Action International, which promotes access to medicines, tells In These Times, It’s one voice among others. You also have the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, and entities related to pharma. It’s one voice plus another plus another that creates this idea that there is support for intellectual property and this agenda.”

The CCC is not transparent about all of its funders, or the exact amounts it receives, and its 990 forms are not posted publicly. (The organization did not respond to a request for comment.) Vidal says this is concerning: When it comes to institutions seeking to influence public discourse and perception, transparency and accountability on funding, affiliations and allegiances are critical and democratically fundamental.”

But CCC does note on its website that its donors include Japan Tobacco International, headquartered in Geneva, which co-sponsored our launch event in Brussels,” and the London-based British American Tobacco, alongside entities like Canaccord (a bank) and the Electric Hand-Dryer Association. The CCC also says it has received funding from the Atlas Network, a foundation that has taken money from the tobacco industry in the past, with British American Tobacco listed as a funder in its 2018 and 2016 reports. As the organization Tobacco Tactics points out, the tobacco company Altria, headquartered in Virginia, lists the CCC among its 2019 recipients of charitable donations.

The organization specifies on its website that British American Tobacco supports our tobacco harm reduction advocacy,” but does not provide more specifics, and the company did not return requests for comment. When asked about funding amounts and motivations, British American Tobacco told In These Times, Like many other companies, we support organizations that contribute to the debate on issues that are important to our consumers. These are independent organizations, with their own views.”

Japan Tobacco International told In These Times over email that it works with a range of business associations and non-governmental organizations, such as think tanks. The Consumer Choice Center (CCC) is one of them. We support CCC on issues related to freedom of consumer choice and the fight against illegal trade, as an unintended consequence of excessive regulation. We do not work with the CCC outside the scope of life-style regulation and are not involved with them on TRIPS.” 

The company added, We do not disclose our contributions due to confidentiality reasons.”

Indeed, the tobacco industry has plenty of other financial interests in supporting the CCC, like the group’s lobbying against a proposed vape and nicotine tax in Georgia, or its creation of the World Vapers’ Alliance. But, Japan Tobacco International’s statement that it is not involved with CCC’s work on TRIPS does not rule out that the company may implicitly understand that CCC will pursue this work; corporate donors often are not directly involved in shaping a think tank or organization’s policies, yet finance them because they benefits from numerous aspects of their work. Either way, Japan Tobacco International is funding a group that opposes a TRIPS waiver, which has real consequence.

According to St. Louis of Public Citizen, opposition to public health measures, whether the TRIPS waiver or regulations, aren’t so easily separated. We know that tobacco companies have used TRIPS and other intellectual property provisions to undermine regulation,” she says. Tobacco companies are saying any regulation for public health is undermining their bottom line, and therefore they have every interest in the world to protect those intellectual property barriers over a public health measure.”

In perhaps the clearest example of this interest in upholding intellectual property rules, the tobacco industry is directly involved in developing vaccines. In April of 2020, British American Tobacco announced that it is working on a potential Covid-19 vaccine,” via Kentucky BioProcessing, the company’s U.S. subsidiary that focuses on biotechnology. According to BAT, the vaccine in development uses BAT’s proprietary, fast-growing tobacco plant technology which has several advantages over conventional vaccine production technology.” In January 2022, BAT launched a new company, KBio Holdings Limited, which will subsume the Covid vaccine work and focus on using tobacco plants to develop biologics and vaccines for rare and infectious disease.” The company says that study of the vaccine remains ongoing.”

BAT is not alone. Philip Morris International owns an approximately one-third stake in the Canadian company, Medicago, whose plant-based Covid vaccine was approved for use in Canada in February. But in March, the World Health Organization announced it was blocking its global prospects, by rejecting the company’s application for emergency use authorization, because of the linkage with the tobacco industry and WHO’s strict policy on not engaging with companies that promote tobacco.” 

Whatever the obstacles, any companies in the business of vaccine development would have a stake in opposing a TRIPS waiver. But the industry’s interests in intellectual property rules extend beyond vaccines: Tobacco companies have a host of patents for things like e-cigarette technology and heated tobacco sticks. And in fierce legal battles over alleged patent infringement, companies like British American Tobacco vow to enforce global patent rules.

But there is another purpose the WTO’s TRIPS rules have specifically served for the industry: They have been used by companies to attempt to roll back laws aimed at protecting the public from the products of the tobacco industry, as the case of Australia shows.

Since 2012, Australia has enforced a rule, Tobacco Plain Packaging Act 2011, requiring plain, drab, logo-free packaging for tobacco goods, a requirement aimed at undercutting the use of packaging for branding and marketing — and thereby reducing the appeal of tobacco products in order to prevent disease and death. (Globally, tobacco kills more than 8 million people annually.) The tobacco industry legally challenged the rule, both in Australia and via an investment treaty between Australia and Hong Kong. Meanwhile, with reported legal advice from tobacco companies, tobacco exporting countries Cuba, the Dominican Republic, Honduras, Indonesia and Ukraine turned to the WTO to challenge the rule. (Ukraine ceased its involvement in 2015.) 

Among other charges, complainants said that the plain packaging rule violated the WTO’s TRIPS agreement. The complainants made a large number of intellectual property-related claims, of which the one the panel most extensively discussed was the claim that plain packaging breached article 20 of TRIPS,” explains a paper by the McCabe Centre for Law and Cancer. That article mandates that the use of a trademark in the course of trade shall not be unjustifiably encumbered by special requirements.” 

While Australia was ultimately victorious against these challenges, the state spent public funds defending its health rule. 

According to St. Louis of Public Citizen, this track record is now playing out during a deadly pandemic. The tobacco industry has historically attempted to use intellectual property rules to block meaningful tobacco control measures in countries around the world,” she says, and I assume that’s why they want to uphold those rules.”

Eloise Goldsmith contributed research to this article.

Sarah Lazare is the editor of Workday Magazine and a contributing editor for In These Times. She tweets at @sarahlazare.

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