How diplomatic missions became entangled with the tobacco industry

24 January 2019
Jessica Glenza
The Guardian:

Mary Assunta: ‘Ideas jumped into tobacco control only recently and was making policy statements that echoed the tobacco industry’s position.’

 Mary Assunta: ‘Ideas jumped into tobacco control only recently and was making policy statements that echoed the tobacco industry’s position.’ Photograph: Anthony Wallace/AFP/Getty Images

The British high commission in Malaysia gave tens of thousands of pounds to a local thinktank while it argued against tobacco controls already enacted in the UK. At the same time it was funded by the British foreign office, the thinktank received substantial funding from three multinational tobacco companies.

The conduct of the high commission raises questions about whether diplomats went against guidelines to “limit interactions” with the tobacco industry, following previous criticism of diplomatic support for the tobacco industry abroad.

British and American diplomatic missions funded the thinktank, the Kuala Lumpur-based Institute for Democracy and Economic Affairs (Ideas), while it argued against tobacco taxes and plain packaging. The UK enacted plain packaging in 2014.

The news follows a Guardian analysis of free-market thinktanks around the world that have taken positions aligned with the tobacco industry. Many thinktanks argued that they recognize the risks of smoking, were independent and opposed ineffective regulation rather than all tobacco regulation.

The analysis revealed at least 106 free-market thinktanks around the world took positions aligned with the tobacco industry in the past decade, accepted donations from the tobacco industry or both. Reporting by the Observer last year has also shown how how the Foreign Office championed British American Tobacco’s interests abroad.

A spokesperson for Britain’s Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) told the Guardian: “The British high commission in Malaysia has not and does not co-finance or partner in any way with tobacco companies, or support projects which promote tobacco use.

“All FCO-led programmes follow the standards set out by HM Treasury. They receive robust scrutiny to ensure that all spend represents value for money for UK taxpayers and advances the UN’s sustainable development goals and our foreign policy objectives.”

Mary Assunta, a senior policy adviser at the Southeast Asia Tobacco Control Alliance (Seatca), said: “Ideas jumped into tobacco control only recently and was making policy statements that echoed the tobacco industry’s position.

“When a group or a consultant uses certain familiar buzz words and pushes anti-health proposals, look deeper, and you will find the link to the tobacco industry.”

In response to questions from the Guardian, Ideas said it followed “a strict policy of editorial independence”, and “thus no donations influence our research and analytical outputs”.

“Less than 15% of our annual funding from the tobacco industry,” Ideas said, noting that it publicly disclosed donations by tobacco companies. “Ideas is perhaps the only civil society organization in Malaysia which maintains this level of transparency. In these financial records, the names of tobacco firms are clearly mentioned and we have never denied this.”

In 2016, Ideas started commenting on tobacco control in Malaysia. In one example, the group’s then executive director, Wan Saiful Wan Jan, wrote a column in the national newspaper the Star criticizing the Malaysian health department’s push for plain packaging.

“I don’t smoke and I get annoyed if people smoke near me,” he wrote. “But notwithstanding my attitude towards smoking, paternalistic government behaviour is more dangerous and must be rejected when we see it.”

In June 2016, Seatca warned the British high commission in Malaysia that Ideas was “mouthing the same arguments used by the tobacco industry in the UK”.

Nevertheless, the high commission increased funding in 2017. The British government’s contribution grew from £46,552 ($60,299) in 2016to £72,820 ($94,324) in 2017. That nearly made the British high commission the group’s largest funder, second only to the philanthropic arm of the Malaysian transportation conglomerate Sime Darby.

At the same time, Ideas received donations from Philip Morris Singapore, Philip Morris Malaysia and Japan Tobacco International. Between 2016 and 2017, the three tobacco companies donated £42,411. British American Tobacco also said it “supports” Ideas.

The British high commission provided funding to Ideas just a few years after British diplomats were criticized for aiding BAT in Pakistan and Panama, according to the Financial Times.

As a result, rules established in 2013 forbade diplomats from lobbying “against any local administration’s policies that are aimed at improving public health, or engage with foreign governments on behalf of the tobacco industry”.

The new rules stated diplomats “should limit interactions with the tobacco industry, including any person or organization that is likely to be working to further the interests of the tobacco industry”.

Ideas received donations from the US National Endowment for Democracy (Ned) and the International Republican Institute (IRI), both groups which receive most of their funding from the American government.

Ned, which gave Ideas $80,000, said it was “unaware of the funding from tobacco groups” or Ideas’s “comments on tobacco related policy in local Malaysian media”. Ned no longer funds Ideas.

Ned said it provided funding to a number of other free-market focused thinktanks as recently as this year. At least four opposed plain packaging of cigarettes, including the Policy Research Institute of Market Economy in Pakistan, the Samriddhi Foundation of Nepal, the Libertarian Club Libek in Serbia and the Free Market Foundation of South Africa. Ned and IRI said its donations were not related to tobacco policy.

In the US, foreign donations to American thinktanks have come under scrutiny as a form of potential lobbying.

While Ideas disclosed its donors, many free-market thinktanks do not, including some which received funding from western diplomats.

For example, the influential Ghanaian thinktank Imani Centre for Policy and Education argued so vociferously against tobacco control that the nation’s health department quoted local activists as saying Imani was an organization which “fronts for the tobacco industry” in an official report to the WHO.

Imani told the Guardian the last tobacco industry donation it received was roughly four years ago.

In one 2012 editorial, Imani’s leader argued the link between lung cancer and smoking has “yet to be empirically established”. Imani told the Guardian it no longer denies smoking causes lung cancer. Nevertheless, the Danish embassy made Imani a key partner in an effort to modernize the Ghana Revenue Authority, providing it with more than £656,000 ($849,716).

The authority of thinktanks, Barrington said, “lies in, ‘You can believe me, because I have independent research here.’ If that is compromised, people stop listening to you. You might as well go straight to the tobacco company.”

In large part, tobacco companies told the Guardian they supported like-minded organizations, like many other businesses.

A spokesperson for Philip Morris International said: “We have worked, and will continue to work, with carefully selected organizations around the world who share our desire to promote policies that produce meaningful public health improvements. It is absolutely ridiculous to imply that supporting an organization would result in a group taking action they otherwise would fundamentally oppose.”

Sam Cleverly, group head of corporate affairs at BAT, said: “Like many other companies, we support like-minded organizations on issues that are important to our business and our consumers.

“We believe publicly elected officials should be allowed to hear all sides of any debate when formulating policy and should be trusted to make informed decisions once they have heard and considered all the arguments.”

Jonathan Duce, head of external affairs for Japan Tobacco, said: “It is clear to everyone that there are health risks associated with smoking – we are fully transparent about this.” He continued: “We are not alone in our thinking and various groups across the world share our view that any regulation, tobacco-related or not, if untested and unproven, could have seriously negative knock-on effects.”