Political ineptitude, public anxiety and the undermining of the WHO

19 June 2020

Ruth E Malone, Janet Hoek: BMJ Journal


In the midst of a global pandemic that has already caused the deaths of more than 350 000 people, US President Donald Trump recently announced he was ending the United States’ relationship with and funding for the World Health Organisation (WHO).1 While pulling out of a United Nations global health body at such a moment might seem bizarre, it is entirely consistent with the Trump administration’s general tendency to undermine, reverse or weaken policies designed to protect health and the environment. It will likely be greeted with quiet but enthusiastic approval from multinational tobacco companies and their allies, which have sought for decades to weaken or wrest control of WHO. For those working in tobacco control and public health, Trump’s actions constitute a very concerning development.

Twenty years ago, the WHO Tobacco Free Initiative released a shocking report based on internal tobacco company documents that detailed the tobacco industry’s extensive attacks on the WHO.2 The report documented how the industry wielded its financial power to undermine the organization, and used so-called ‘independent’ surrogates to attack the credibility of WHO leaders and scientific reports. Industry-funded ‘experts’ promulgated misinformation to distort the emerging scientific consensus about the effects of secondhand smoke, and to deter or weaken policy measures needed to protect the public.

In 2008 another WHO report documented sustained industry efforts to interfere with tobacco control.3 The activity summarised in these reports undoubtedly contributed …