Public Good Hijacked by Tobacco Corporation for Profit

25 July 2019
E. Ulysses Dorotheo, MD, FPAO

The writer is Executive Director of Southeast Asia Tobacco Control Alliance (SEATCA).

BANGKOK (IDN) – Many corporations make money at the expense of the public interest, but the world’s largest tobacco company, Philip Morris International (PMI) has raised the bar again.

In 2017 PMI pledged US$80 million annually for 12 years toward the establishment of the Foundation for a Smoke-Free World (FSFW) as part of its “smoke-free future”, and claims it wants people to stop smoking.

In reality, both PMI and its wholly PMI-funded FSFW have hijacked the public health community’s smoke-free terminology in a blatant attempt to sustain nicotine addiction and industry profits.

The public understanding of “smoke-free” is clearly summed up in the definition provided by the global tobacco control treaty, the World Health Organization Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (WHO FCTC), referring to environments in which tobacco smoke cannot be seen, smelled, sensed or measured; in countries where smoking is the main or only form of tobacco use, it also means “tobacco-free”.

Both PMI and FSFW have twisted this meaning to refer only to “cigarette-smoke-free,” thereby confusing the public about the harms of nicotine and other tobacco constituents and emissions.

This deceives the public into accepting PMI’s heated tobacco products (HTPs) and electronic nicotine delivery systems (ENDS), such as e-cigarettes, and urges smokers to shift to these other products rather than quitting altogether.

Despite clear evidence of health risks, these new products are promoted as supposedly safer alternatives to traditional cigarettes, reminiscent of cigarette filtersand “light” or “low tar” cigarettes that were promoted by tobacco companies to give false reassurance to smokers that these reduced their risks of health harms.

This is also a tactic to sustain tobacco company profits and reposition the industry within the tobacco control policy space.

According to WHO, ENDS produce aerosols composed of various gases and particles that are toxicants with known health effects resulting in a range of significant pathological changes.

The WHO also reiterates that all forms of tobacco use are harmful, including HTPs, because tobacco is inherently toxic and contains carcinogens even in its natural form. A new study published earlier this year showed HTPs, ENDS, and conventional cigarettes are all toxic to human lung cells.

To complicate matters, since January 2019, the PMI-funded FSFW has filed for trademark ownership of the mark “[Smoke-Free Index]” in the U.S., EU, UK, and Switzerland, and in March 2019, FSFW announced it had appointed a research company, Euromonitor, and a think tank, SustainAbility, to develop “the first ever Smoke-Free Index” to evaluate tobacco companies shifting from conventional cigarettes to alternative “smoke-free” products.

These actions are disingenuous and will cause further confusion, because the real and first Smoke-Free Index was developed by the SEATCA in 2016 and updated in 2017, and another update will be released in 2019.

SEATCA’s Smoke-Free Index assesses implementation of smoke-free policies in line with the WHO FCTC and is part of SEATCA’s suite of tobacco control indices: Tobacco Industry Interference Index, Tobacco Tax Index, Packaging and Labeling Index, and Tobacco Advertising, Promotion and Sponsorship Index.

FSFW’s actions also play to a PMI concern identified in a 2014 PMI Corporate Affairs presentation made public by a 2017 Reuters investigative report: “We’re still building ASEAN-wide counterweights to SEATCA, the major ATO [anti-tobacco organization] in Asia.” With this copycat Smoke-Free Index, PMI is therefore able to hit two birds with one stone.

According to a statement by Action on Smoking and Health USA (ASH) Executive Director Laurent Huber, “PMI has closely watched the public health community for decades and is always looking for ways to counteract and undermine our work.

PMI funding a new entity, the Foundation for a Smoke-Free World, is their most recent attempt to hijack and destabilize civil society’s work, so it’s no surprise they would turn to patent lawyers to look for ways to undermine existing, respected reporting mechanisms like SEATCA’s Smoke-Free Index.”

News of the PMI-funded FSFW’s Smoke-Free Index has been met with skepticism by tobacco control campaigners and financial investors. Very recently, government and civil society rejection has led to the cancellation of regional dialogues organized in Turkey and Thailand by SustainAbility intended to inform this copycat index. Given PMI’s aggressive promotion of its HTPs and ENDS, health advocates suspect that the report will be an annual public relations gimmick to endorse PMI and its non-cigarette sales, even as it continues to aggressively and simultaneously promote regular cigarettes in developing countries.

An analysis of PMI-funded FSFW’s tax return filed this year for its 2018 operations, reveals that it is still funded solely by PMI and spent more in 2018 on public relations than on research grants, that it appears to be failing to spend its financial allocation on research, and that despite claims of independence, it is contracting public relations, legal, and research organizations with ties to the tobacco industry.

Clearly, the usurpation by PMI and PMI-funded FSFW of the term smoke-free is wrong and confuses the public on the harms of tobacco constituents. FSFW’s trademarking of the term “Smoke-Free Index” is misleading and tantamount to wrongful appropriation of the SEATCA’s Smoke-free Index that exists for the public good.

About SEATCA 

SEATCA is a multi-sectoral non-governmental alliance promoting health and saving lives by assisting ASEAN countries to accelerate and effectively implement the evidence-based tobacco control measures contained in the WHO FCTC. Acknowledged by governments, academic institutions, and civil society for its advancement of tobacco control movements in Southeast Asia, the WHO bestowed on SEATCA the World No Tobacco Day Award in 2004 and the WHO Director-General’s Special Recognition Award in 2014. [IDN-InDepthNews – 25 July 2019]

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