The Swiss like butter on both sides of their toast.
Headquartered in Lausanne, half an hour’s train ride from the World Health Organisation in Geneva, you’ll find the headquarters of the world’s most profitable tobacco company, Philip Morris International (PMI).
Makers of Marlboro and other global brands.
A few years ago, at the end of a very long interview, held in the PMI Boardroom, I asked a senior PMI executive what he would most like to tell the public health community.
This gentleman, although friendly and accommodating, had smoked all over me for three solid hours.
“I would like the public health community to try to spend some time listening to what Philip Morris has to say and to see whether or not we can reach some kind of agreement… I think if we continue to fight as opposed to try to reach an accord, we’re losing an opportunity, and I think that Philip Morris has a lot to offer that can help shape and develop regulation, but the public health community has [got] to get beyond its pre-conceived notion that anything that Philip Morris or any other tobacco company proposes is immediately suspect and inappropriate. That would be my number one concern…”
The wish of this PMI executive was the same as that of every other tobacco executive I spoke to: he wanted governments and public health advocates to listen to his company. He wanted to partner with the public health community, he wanted a role in shaping policy and regulation. He wanted “the war” to end.
Philip Morris International may be a step closer to this aim with the launch of a new entity called the Foundation for a smoke-free World.
Foundation for a Smoke-Free World
Founded by Derek Yach, the former head of the WHO’s Tobacco Free Initiative, the Foundation was launched with a promise of US$80 million funding per year for 12 years from PMI.
The aims of the Foundation are to “advance smoking cessation and harm-reduction science and technology”. These aims appear suitably aligned with PMI’s strategy of eventually replacing cigarettes with smoke-free products, and in order to get there, lobbying governments to give preferential treatment to non-combustible recreational nicotine products.
PMI’s website states that: “we don’t agree that banning cigarettes makes sense for smokers or for society at large.”
But speaking of the success of IQOS (a heated tobacco product manufactured by PMI) in South Korea and Japan, PMI CEO André Calantzopoulos suggests that in five years, as users of heated devices outnumber smokers, “That is when we could start talking to governments about phasing out combustible cigarettes entirely.”
They’ve taken their time sharing it with us, but according to Philip Morris, there is an answer to the tobacco epidemic. It seems you won’t find it in the World Health Organisation’s Framework Convention on Tobacco Control, nor in generations of experience with evidence-based tobacco control laws and policies.
Rather, the answer lies elsewhere:
In particular, PMI wants smokers to start using IQOS, the first of four smoke-free products it is (apparently) building its future on.
Of course, PMI needs governments to play their part as well.
Which is why, I suspect, substantial funding to the Foundation for a Smoke-free World makes sense at this time.
The centrepiece of the Foundation’s claim to independence is the article on scientific integrity in its by-laws, which states:
“The goal of the Corporation is to promote and support significant scientific research that advances the field of tobacco harm reduction and reduces the public health burden of smoking-related diseases. The Corporation shall not take into account the potential impact of that research on the image of the tobacco industry or any other industry or commercial entity”.
That sounds good, doesn’t it, if they can manage it?
The problem is that the funding for this Foundation would appear to depend on annual or periodic renewal by a tobacco multinational.
And that is howlingly significant.
The existence of the Foundation, certainly its size and clout, will depend on how the activities and results of the Foundation appeal to PMI’s board.
That may not be such a risk if you’re married to a vision of tobacco harm reduction that involves promoting the recreational nicotine products that PMI wants to flog around the world.
According to PMI CEO André Calantzopoulos, “The Foundation is a welcome driver of change, at a time when a smoke-free future is clearly on the horizon. We will welcome its recommendations to accelerate smoker adoption of less harmful alternatives.”
But if the Foundation, in all its independence, were to fail to effectively prosecute the case for harm reduction in a form that benefits PMI’s business case, surely the Board would re-consider its investment. It would be mad not to.
The Foundation for a Smoke-free World has appeared at a time of unique risk for makers of e-cigarettes and heated tobacco products.
I would expect that part of the Foundation’s work, pursuant to its harm reduction agenda, would be to encourage governments to make e-cigarettes more available (in jurisdictions, like Australia, where they are banned), perhaps to tax them at a lower rate, and certainly to reverse the tendency seen in jurisdictions like California to apply smoke-free laws and minimum purchasing age restrictions equally to both cigarettes and non-combustible nicotine products. (See references to California’s legislation in a previous post).
Addressing this dangerous tendency, and promoting a regulatory environment that allows recreational nicotine products to thrive, is best framed in terms of “saving lives”.
Australia’s Health Minister, Greg Hunt MP, has stated that he will not lift the ban on e-cigarettes: “not on my watch”.
For that, I believe, he deserves credit.
We can expect a gush of Foundation-funded research, ultimately paid for by Philip Morris, arguing that e-cigarettes and heated tobacco products save lives.
Rather than focusing on implementing the evidence-based controls in the Framework Convention on Tobacco Control, governments will be encouraged to switch strategy towards tobacco harm reduction, which translates into relaxing controls on the products that make PMI shareholders rich.
The World Health Organisation claims the Foundation has conflicts of interest and states: “WHO will not partner with the Foundation. Governments should not partner with the Foundation and the public health community should follow this lead.”
In the end, whatever the Foundation and its leaders think they are doing, given the scale of PMI’s investment, the Foundation will perform a massively important public relations function for its economic parent.
These PR functions are important, given that in the here and now, PMI remains firmly in the cigarette business, exploiting markets around the world where tobacco control laws remain weak (see eg Kalra et al in Reuters).
Reaction to the Foundation for a Smoke-free World
To say that the launch of the Foundation has been taken badly by NGOs and global leaders in tobacco control is something of an under-statement.
Distinguished Professor of Tobacco Control at UC San Francisco, Stanton Glantz, writes that “Derek Yach’s journey to the dark side is now complete”, pointing out that PMI’s funding of the Foundation represents “about .1% of PMI’s revenues and 1% of its profits”.
“This ‘new’ initiative is just more of the same lipstick on the industry pig, but in a way it’s far worse this time: by using a formerly high profile WHO leader as a spokesperson, PMI can also accelerate its longstanding ambition to splinter the tobacco control movement”.
WHO points out that if PMI supported a smoke-free world it would support evidence-based tobacco control policies that help people quit smoking, including tobacco taxes, graphic disease warning labels, and comprehensive bans on tobacco advertising, promotion and sponsorship.
These are building blocks of successful tobacco control. They work.
The reality, in jurisdictions around the world, is that PMI opposes these measures.
Outside of rich western markets, where health considerations predominate, it’s business as usual for Philip Morris International and for Marlboro, their star brand.
(Marlboro advertising in Jakarta, Indonesia; the photo at the top, from the island of Lombok, is typical of advertising by Philip Morris International throughout the archipelego)