Big Tobacco criticised for 'coronavirus publicity stunt' after donating ventilators

Philip Morris International, the world’s largest multinational tobacco company, has been accused of a “shameful publicity stunt” by a leading campaigner after it donated ventilators to the Greek government as coronavirus infections mount in the country.

Evidence suggests that smokers are more likely to suffer a severe form of the disease than non-smokers.

A PMI executive said that the company’s Greek affiliate Papastratos had sourced and paid for the ventilators in order to help “flatten the curve”. Stavros Drakoularakos, PMI’s director of communications for Greece, tweeted the news and said he was “sky-high proud” of the move and described it as “proof of what sheer will and collaboration between all can achieve”.

Papastratos donated 50 ventilators for use in Greek hospitals, including 19 to intensive care units at the Sotiria General Hospital of Thoracic Diseases in Athens. There are 1,156 confirmed cases of Covid-19, the disease caused by coronavirus, in Greece as of Wednesday afternoon. Thirty-eight people have died.

Vasilis Kikilias, the health minister, thanked the cigarette company for its donation.

Deborah Arnott, chief executive of Action on Smoking and Health, criticised PMI’s motives. “This is a shameful publicity stunt by Philip Morris International, which owns Papastratos and has a 40% share of the Greek tobacco market,” she said.

“Smoking makes people more vulnerable to coronavirus, and if they get it makes the symptoms worse, meaning they’re more likely to need ventilators. Papastratos makes €1.3bn a year ... In comparison, the donation of 50 ventilators is a drop in the ocean.”

A recent study published by Chinese researchers in the New England Journal of Medicine reported that smokers were much more likely to progress to the severe stage of Covid-19 than non-smokers.

Constantine Vardavas, a research associate at the University of Crete’s school of medicine, said: "If smoking does predispose people to having adverse outcomes during Covid-19 it is a funny position to be giving ventilators but selling a product that leads to worse outcomes."

Greece has one of the highest smoking rates in the EU. Nearly a third of adults are smokers, according to 2014 figures.

The World Health Organization reports that smoking kills more than 8 million people across the globe every year.

Moira Gilchrist, a vice president at PMI, said: “We were happy to help the Greek government fulfil a critical need by sourcing this lifesaving equipment.”

In the United States, Governor of Virginia Ralph Northam has asked if tobacco companies can help tackle the coronavirus outbreak by producing personal protection equipment.

Header image: A photograph released by the Greek Ministry of Health showing hospital staff using the ventilators

Our reporting on tobacco is part of our Global Health project, which has a number of funders. Smoke Screen is funded by Vital Strategies. None of our funders have any influence over the Bureau’s editorial decisions or output.