Sunday, October 15, 2017 8:15 pm
By Daniels Ekugo
The World Health Organization (WHO) is fuming over Philip Morris International’s (PMI) efforts to go smokeless—and the second-hand moves it’s using to do it.
As cigarette sales decline worldwide, the tobacco giant is scrambling to restructure and embrace potentially more profitable “smoke-free” products. The revamp involves setting up an $80 million foundation called the Foundation for a Smoke-Free World. In the next 12 years, the foundation aims to rope in health and government organizations and “advance smoking cessation and harm-reduction science and technology.”
But the World Health Organization is working quickly to extinguish this new foundation’s chances.
In a searing statement last week, the organization roundly rebuked PMI and accused it of being disingenuous about consumer health, citing decades of research meddling and deceptive marketing. It declared it would have nothing to do with the foundation and warned governments the world over to do the same.
The WHO concluded: 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.
In chastising PMI, the WHO noted that evidence-based policies such as tobacco taxes, graphic warning labels, and bans on advertising, promotion, and sponsorship have already proven effective at cutting smoking rates. “If PMI were truly committed to a smoke-free world, the company would support these policies,” the WHO wrote. “Instead, PMI opposes them.”
As an example, the WHO noted that PMI spent six years and $24 million fighting tobacco health warnings and a ban on misleading packaging in Uruguay. PMI lost its legal case there last year.
In an open letter to the WHO, the foundation’s president-designate Dr. Derek Yach wrote that he and his colleagues were “surprised and deeply disappointed” by the WHO’s statement, which “mischaracterized” the foundation’s role. He emphasized that the foundation would operate independently of PMI and will be “fully insulated” from the tobacco industry.
Yach, a former WHO official himself, called for the WHO to retract its statement and give the foundation time to prove itself.
“Taking action now is premature,” he wrote. “Let us rather focus our combined energies on reducing smoking.”
The WHO seemed resolute in its stance, however. “There are many unanswered questions about tobacco harm reduction,” the organization wrote. “But the research needed to answer these questions should not be funded by tobacco companies.”