Philip Morris International, the world’s largest multinational tobacco company, has been accused of a “shameful publicity stunt” by a leading advocate after it donated ventilators to the Greek government as coronavirus infections mount in the country.
Early evidence suggests smokers are more likely to suffer a severe form of illness than non-smokers infected by the virus.
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. As of Sunday, there were at least 1,156 confirmed cases of COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus, in Greece, and at least 38 people had died in connection with it.
Vasilis Kikilias, the health minister, thanked the cigarette company for its donation.
But Deborah Arnott, chief executive of Action on Smoking and Health, an international consortium of anti-tobacco advocacy groups, criticized PMI’s motives. “This is a shameful publicity stunt by Philip Morris International, which owns Papastratos and has a 40 percent 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 a ventilator,” she added. “Papastratos makes €1.3bn a year... In comparison, the donation of 50 ventilators is a drop in the ocean.”
A recent study by Chinese researchers published 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.
"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,” said Constantine Vardavas, a research associate at the University of Crete’s school of medicine.
Greece has one of the highest smoking rates in the E.U. 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 fulfill a critical need by sourcing this lifesaving equipment.”