Tobacco control advocates are familiar with the “scream test” – the litmus test for an effective measure that hurts the tobacco industry and causes it to protest. Recently, a regional tobacco control group, the Southeast Asia Tobacco Control Alliance (SEATCA) received a 36-page letter from Dr Gary Johns on behalf of the International Tax and Investment Center (ITIC) which shows the industry screaming.

The ITIC is a think tank based in Washington DC that claims to be an independent, non-profit research and educational organisation supported by 100 corporations including four transnational tobacco companies (BAT, PMI, JTI and Imperial Brands), each of which are represented on its board of directors ( Dr Gary Johns is an Australian consultant “engaged by ITIC to engage with its critics”.

The letter sent to SEATCA is riddled with false accusations against SEATCA, mischaracterizations of fact and law, disparaging comments about the World Health Organization (WHO), the WHO Framework Convention on Tobacco Control Secretariat (FCS) and the Parties to the FCTC.

What had SEATCA done to bring about this tirade? In 2012, the ITIC and Oxford Economics (OE) released a report on illicit tobacco trade, Asia-11 Illicit Tobacco Indicator 2012 to provide evidence of illicit trade of tobacco products of 11 countries in Asia. The ITIC later launched an updated version, Asia-14 Illicit Tobacco Indicator 2013”, expanding the review to 14 countries in Asia. Both reports were funded by Philip Morris International (PMI).

SEATCA published critiques of both reports. The first, More Myth than Fact provided an expert review of the methodology of the Asia-11 report, questioning the reliability and accuracy of the estimates of illicit consumption. The second, A Critique of the ITIC/OE Asia-14 Illicit Tobacco Indicator 2013, pointed out that the report failed to provide scientifically sound and unbiased information. The figures and statistics used in the report were products of either incorrect or unverified/unverifiable estimation methods, applied to often questionable data from multiple, disparate sources.

It appears that PMI wants to steer governments away from WHO FCTC Article 5.3, which aims to protect public health policies from tobacco industry interference, and would rather governments participate in industry sponsored programs and adopt its recommendations on tobacco taxation.

In November 2014, the ITIC organized a briefing for governments attending the sixth session of the FCTC Conference of the Parties (COP6) in Moscow hoping to dissuade them from their decision to adopt Article 6 guidelines on tobacco tax. However, the Framework Convention Secretariat (FCS) was able to caution governments in a timely manner about this ITIC meeting by issuing a Note Verbale in September 2014.

In February this year, SEATCA’s Executive Director received a letter from ITIC’s President inviting her to a ‘roundtable discussion’, particularly “an experts’ meeting of professional economists” which SEATCA declined.

In March, the FCS issued a second Note Verbale on tobacco industry interference on the tracking and tracing systems, again making reference to the ITIC.

Dr Johns wrote to an internationally renowned Thai tobacco control leader requesting them to urge SEATCA to meet with him about the critiques of ITIC reports. However, SEATCA has a policy of not engaging with the tobacco industry or its representatives. Dr Johns made another effort by phone and email, and failing to secure a meeting hand-delivered the letter in April. Because SEATCA does not engage with the tobacco industry or individuals or organisations representing it, it decided to publish an open letter in response to Dr Gary John and the ITIC.

Among the many accusations the ITIC makes is that SEATCA “sees itself as an instrument of the World Health Organization and its Framework Convention Secretariat”. This statement undermines the credibility of the many international and regional non-governmental groups that work closely with inter-governmental organisations. SEATCA is a civil society alliance that works independently of the WHO and FCS. Like many other tobacco control NGOs, SEATCA has observer status with the FCTC COP. Observer status with the COP does not make SEATCA an instrument of the COP.

SEACTA is an NGO in a developing country which carries out its activities in countries in the Southeast Asian region. ITIC’s letter, with its intimidating tone, appears aimed at bullying SEATCA in its efforts to expose the tactics of PMI and its representatives. This type of intimidation has a larger impact in a developing country setting as it aims to discredit a tobacco control NGO that works closely with governments.

The ITIC’s attack on a tobacco control NGO is another example of an old tried and tested tactic of the tobacco industry. Attempts at intimidation or silencing NGOs in any form must be exposed and stopped.

Mary Assunta

Southeast Asia Tobacco Control Alliance