Philip Morris International trying to bring back the Council for Tobacco Research

WHO Head-Quater in Geneva, Switzerland.
Copyright : WHO/Pierre Virot

Oh, this is too rich. Philip Morris International, the international wing of Altria, has proposed setting up something called “A Foundation for a Smokefree World.”

The World Health Organization has urged world governments not to get involved with the foundation, pointing out the pretty glaring conflict of interest.

Here’s the kicker, Philip Morris Int’l plans to fund its foundation with $80 million over 12 years. Wow, that’s big of them. A multibillion corporation that has been fighting anti-tobacco intiatives worldwide for 10 years that will rake in billions in profits setting aside $80 million over 12 years for good public relations.

Here is an excerpt from WHO’s statement. It’s awesome, it doesn’t pull any punches:

The UN General Assembly has recognized a “fundamental

conflict of interest between the tobacco industry and public health.” (1) WHO Member States have stated that “WHO does not engage with the tobacco industry or non-State actors that work to further the interests of the tobacco industry”, (2) the Organization will therefore not engage with this new Foundation.

Article 5.3 of the WHO Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (WHO FCTC) obliges Parties to act to protect public health policies from commercial and other vested interests of the tobacco industry in accordance with national law. Guidelines for implementation of Article 5.3 state clearly that governments should limit interactions with the tobacco industry and avoid partnership. These Guidelines are also explicit that Governments should not accept financial or other contributions from the tobacco industry or those working to further its interests, such as this Foundation.

Strengthening implementation of the WHO FCTC for all tobacco products remains the most effective approach to tobacco control. Policies such as tobacco taxes, graphic warning labels, comprehensive bans on advertising, promotion and sponsorship, and offering help to quit tobacco use have been proven to reduce demand for tobacco products. These policies focus not just on helping existing users to quit, but on preventing initiation.

(Here’s the kicker:)

If PMI were truly committed to a smoke-free world, the company would support these policies. Instead, PMI opposes them. PMI engages in large scale lobbying and prolonged and expensive litigation against evidence-based tobacco control policies such as those found in the WHO FCTC and WHO’s MPOWER tobacco control, which assists in implementation of the WHO FCTC. For example, just last year PMI lost a six year investment treaty arbitration with Uruguay, in which the company spent approximately US$ 24 million to oppose large graphic health warnings and a ban on misleading packaging in a country with fewer than four million inhabitants.

There are many unanswered questions about tobacco harm reduction (3), but the research needed to answer these questions should not be funded by tobacco companies. The tobacco industry and its front groups have misled the public about the risks associated with other tobacco products. This includes promoting so-called light and mild tobacco products as an alternative to quitting, while being fully aware that those products were not less harmful to health. Such misleading conduct continues today with companies, including PMI, marketing tobacco products in ways that misleadingly suggest that some tobacco products are less harmful than others.

This decades-long history means that research and advocacy funded by tobacco companies and their front groups cannot be accepted at face value. When it comes to the Foundation for a Smoke-Free World, there are a number of clear conflicts of interest involved with a tobacco company funding a purported health foundation, particularly if it promotes sale of tobacco and other products found in that company’s brand portfolio. WHO will not partner with the Foundation. Governments should not partner with the Foundation and the public health community should follow this lead.

I love WHO calling this Foundation a “front group” because that’s sure what it sounds like. Philip Morris International has fought and fought and fought tobacco regulations around the world, including plain packaging laws and limits on tobacco marketing. And now it wants to convince people its one of the good guys?

The president of the foundation responded, but I remain pretty unconvinced.

 From Reuters:
The foundation’s founder and president-designate, Derek Yach, a former senior official at the WHO, said more collaboration, not less, was needed to win the war on smoking.
“I am deeply disappointed, therefore, by WHO’s complete mischaracterisation of the nature, structure and intent of the Foundation in its recent statements – and especially by its admonition to others not to work together.”
I find this a pitifually empty statement Collaboration? Really? With the industry that has been fighting regulations tooth and nail? If this foundation was legit, why not find sources of funding other than the tobacco industry? Then, I might give it some benefit of the doubt (though to be honest, it would be really easy for the industry to fund the foundation through dummy organizations.)
What Derek Yach needs to be reminded of is that Big Tobacco did something very similar 60 years ago, it was called the Tobacco Institute and the Council for Tobacco Research. It was established as a PR move to try and convince the public that the industry was “concerned” about the “possible” health effects of smoking. Instead, the institute was used for decades to deflect, distract and obfuscate the facts about smoking. These organizations were disbanded by the 1998 Master Settlement Agreement, but it appears PMI is trying to start up something that sounds absolutely similar.

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