Vaping: The real dollars behind fake consumer organisations

November 2021

Par Stéphane Horel (with Ties Keyzer, Tim Luimes and Eva Schram of “The Investigative Desk” and datacitron (illustrations)) Source: Le Monde

An investigation by “Le Monde” and “The Investigative Desk” (Netherlands) reveals the alliance between the tobacco lobby and the networks of American oil tycoons to prevent regulations on electronic cigarettes.

The minibus of deceit

“Are you a vaper or a smoker?” Half a dozen people are approaching passers-by with that question, flyer in hand, slogan flocked on their polyester T-shirts: “Back vaping. Beat Smoking”. At the end September 2021, after stops in Barcelona, Milan and Berlin, the World Vaper’s Alliance electric minibus, donned with a pink boxing glove on the roof, was visiting Shoreditch, a hipster part of London.

The minibus, part of a European tour that stops in eight countries, does not propagate greenhouse gases but a simple message: the electronic cigarette can “save 19 million lives” in Europe. Vaping is “95% less harmful than smoking”says the World Vapers’ Alliance. Governments, however, “are increasingly restricting vaping”, by taxing e-cigarettes and imposing bans on flavoured e-liquids. That is why the World Vapers’ Alliance proposes to “amplif[y] the voice of passionate vapers around the world” to make it “heard by those in the corridors of power.”

Soft-eyed under a wave of slicked-back hair, Adidas on his feet, Michael Landl, 34, gives a tour of the vessel of this movement he has been leading since August 2020. The London site features a thick layer of synthetic grass on the ground. A tent to write to elected representatives and support the campaign. A studio to record the testimonies of vapers cured of cigarettes. A selfie corner. And small gifts as well. “We see several hundred people every day, it works really well,” says the young Austrian, who vapes melon, green apple and mint flavours.

Michael Landl is adamant that “twenty-four organisations and about fifteen thousand individual members” are part of his movement. But on his website, this figure increases to “tens of thousands of vapers.” So who exactly does the World Vapers’ Alliance represent?

In the studio, there is a clue on the high-top table: Red Flag. In charge of collecting the written consent of the vapers-witnesses being recorded, this public relations firm mentioned on the documents is a familiar name in Europe. Its speciality: to set up movements that seem to be grassroots-oriented, but are not. This lobbying and propaganda tactic has a name: “astroturfing” – like the synthetic lawn covering the London encampment of the World Vapers’ Alliance.

The World Vapers’ Alliance also organized self-allegorical demonstrations without protesters

Red Flag had made a name for itself in 2017 by organising the “Freedom to Farm” operation, a campaign in support of glyphosate in eight European countries orchestrated on behalf of the agrochemical group Monsanto (now Bayer), with very few farmers in its ranks. Among its biggest clients (up to 200,000 euros per year)Red Flag includes British American Tobacco, the manufacturer of Lucky Strike and Dunhill, and several e-cigarette brands.

It wasn’t the first time the World Vapers’ Alliance campaigned without representing the public. On a tour without an audience, the World Vapers’ Alliance also organized self-allegorical demonstrations without protesters. Gathered in front of the European Parliament in Brussels or at the foot of the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin, they used life-size cardboard silhouettes of Michael Landl and other individuals with frozen smiles as protesters. Most of them happen to be part of the team of another organisation of which the World Vapers’ Alliance is in fact only a front: the Consumer Choice Center (CCC).

Launched in Brussels in April 2017, the CCC too claims to be a “global grassroots movement” that represents “millions of consumers” in “100 countries across the globe”. The word “grassroots” suggests the spontaneous mobilisation of a collective of concerned consumers. But its managing director, 34-year-old German Fred Roeder, who was skiing in Dubai last July in the artificial snow of a complex where actual penguins waddle around, certainly doesn’t have the habits of the average consumer.

Is the CCC truly a mass movement? Invoking the European regulation on data protection, its director refuses to provide proof of the existence of its members, even anonymously. On social networks, the organisation has a long way to go, with just over 3,000 followers on Facebook or Twitter.

Its objectives are more transparent: the CCC is opposed to “paternalistic” regulations which, according to them, hamper the freedom of consumers in areas as varied as the digital economy, transport, health or “lifestyle”. Opposed to sugar and alcohol taxes and in favour of the legalisation of cannabis, the CCC has made “tobacco harm reduction” one of its main battle grounds.

The new members of the World Vapers’ Alliance walking away from the Citroën van, with a branded goodie under their arm, are missing a crucial piece of information: the two organisations that make up one are funded by the tobacco industry. “What?” choked a young woman, after stepping away from the campaign minibus. “They didn’t tell me, but they should have,” she said, disgruntled. “I could feel that something was wrong.”

The invisible hand of the (tobacco) market

Taking money from tobacco to defend vaping? Michael Landl believes that there is “no problem”“All the information is on our website”, he argues. Not on the World Vapers’ Alliance’s website, though. To find it, it is necessary to look thoroughly on the website of the CCC, the organisation that the WVA emerged from

Major transnational tobacco companies have put up money to support the organisation. Japan Tobacco International (manufacturer of Winston and Benson & Hedges cigarettes) sponsored its launch event and funded it. The CCC is also supported by British American Tobacco since 2019, Philip Morris International and Altria (Philip Morris USA’s parent company).

Interviewed by Le Monde and The Investigative Desk in a London pub, and then in follow-up emails, Fred Roeder refused to disclose the amounts of these donations. “We have full independence in our activity so nothing can be considered ‘earmarked’,” the CCC director says.

British American Tobacco specifically funds the organisation to support its “tobacco harm reduction advocacy.” Very much in vogue since 2017, the concept of “harm reduction” encourages smokers to turn to nicotine inhalers, similar to the way drug addicts use methadone to kick heroin.

The World Health Organization (WHO), which is leading the fight against smoking, believes that science has not yet been able to make a decision on electronic devices, which are banned in 32 countries. Its regular warnings against the new products exasperate supporters of “harm reduction”, who tout them as less harmful than cigarettes. This debate is tearing apart the tobacco control world, where vaping advocates can be honest believers or allies of the tobacco companies – one not excluding the other.

“Big Tobacco” is now using “harm reduction” as a Trojan horse to present itself as a credible interlocutor with the public authorities

“Big Tobacco” has indeed rushed to claim the concept to turn it into a marketing tool. Opportunely updated around its promise of a “smoke-free world”, the tools in its influence box aim to prevent public authorities from regulating and taxing these new products. The industry is now using “harm reduction” as a Trojan horse to present itself as a credible interlocutor with the public authorities, without however giving up selling cigarettes, which bring in 596 billion euros each year. One of the industry’s preferred tactics is to set up front groups that carry its message in a more presentable guise.

Vapers are generally hostile towards the manufacturers who fueled their addiction. Most ex-smokers or people who are on their way to be, sometimes shuttling between electronic devices and relapsing into tobacco, know that half of smokers die from their cigarettes. There are over a billion smokers on earth. Seven million of them will die of their addiction in 2021 alone, bringing with them an additional million victims of secondhand smoke, according to the WHO.

Since 2009, when independent manufacturers started introducing them, the new electronic products have been transformed into an opportunity by big companies. Anxious not to lose any customers, they sell their own e-cigarettes: Vuse (British American Tobacco), Juul (of which Altria is a minority shareholder), Logic (Japan Tobacco International) or Blu (Imperial Brands). As for the market of “heat-not-burn”, devices that release an aerosol by heating tobacco to a lower temperature than cigarettes, it is dominated by IQOS, made by Philip Morris International, the manufacturer of the famous cigarette brand Marlboro. All these new products already represented a market of 13 billion euros in 2019.

Subterfuges made in Brussels

14 July 2021. Under Brussels’ overcast sky, just outside the European Parliament, the World Vapers’ Alliance starts its minibus tour. German MEP Peter Liese, an influential member of the European People’s Party (Christian Democrats), came to support the campaign and to greet Michael Landl.

The following day sees the first meeting of BECA (Special Committee on Beating Cancer), a special committee of the Parliament tasked with discussing Europe’s Beating Cancer Plan, a project initiated by the European Commission in early 2020. With the goal of a “tobacco-free generation” by 2040, the “Cancer Plan” envisages not only revisiting taxes on cigarettes, but also extending them to electronic nicotine delivery devices, considered tobacco products. For the tobacco industry, whose products are responsible for nearly a quarter of all cancers in Europe, this project constitutes a serious threat.

BECA’s draft report, presented in July, goes even further and proposes to ban the e-cigarette flavours: cotton candy, muffin or jelly bean flavours are real traps for children and teenagers. Several MEPs are opposed to this. One of them is Peter Liese.

Michael Landl presented the World Vapers’ Alliance to him as a “very small budget” consumer organisation, so the MEP didn’t know that it is funded by money from the tobacco companies. But the information does not call into question either his position or his support for their campaign. An argument “cannot be completely overturned because of the possibility that the tobacco industry might also use this argument,” Liese, who still appears in a promotional video of the Word Vapers’ Alliance, replied by email . “As a medical doctor I have been fighting against tobacco consumption ever since I was first elected to the European Parliament,” he continues, calling on the fact that he has supported plain packaging and a ban on tobacco advertising in the past. Initially reluctant, he now supports “tobacco harm reduction” and vaping.

Peter Liese is not the only contact person for the CCC in the European Parliament. The CCC claims on its website to facilitate a Parliament “intergroup” made up of about thirty elected representatives, named “MEPs4Innovation”. The group’s logo supports the claim. The group is “not yet” on the official list of intergroups because of an administrative shortcoming, says Fred Roeder. But the Parliament denies this: MEPs4Innovation “is not an official group”.

Half of the members of the unofficial intergroup come from populist or far-right parties (including the French Rassemblement National) and are united around several themes, including “harm reduction”. Two of them, Italian MEPs Pietro Fiocchi (European Conservatives and Reformists Group) and Aldo Patriciello (European People’s Party), are also members of the BECA committee; they have tabled some twenty amendments that are pro-vape and not in line with the “Cancer Plan”.

The CCC funded by the tobacco industry? Pietro Fiocchi had “no idea”. But learning about it doesn’t bother him. “I talk to Philip Morris, I talk to British American Tobacco. You name it, I talk to them,” says this member of the neo-fascist party Fratelli d’Italia.

In addition to the “Cancer Plan”, the CCC is involved in all legislative processes affecting the interests of the tobacco industry. To inject its ideas into the meanders of European decision-making, the organisation also uses more traditional lobbying actions, devoting about a third of its budget of nearly one million euros to this.

Smoking is “a matter of consumer choice and personal responsibility,” says the CCC

A dozen employees are busy organizing conferences and roundtables, drafting policy papers and reports, placing op-eds in the most widely read media in Brussels, hosting podcasts, and feeding the Twitter, Facebook, YouTube and Instagram accounts. They participate directly in the law-making process through written contributions to public consultations organized by the Commission to guide its decisions. In October 2020, the CCC criticized the report of a scientific committee on e-cigarettes as being “ram-packed full of biased arguments”. In June 2021, the CCC was against any form of taxation of tobacco and e-cigarettes. Smoking, they believe, is “a matter of consumer choice and personal responsibility.”

The richest brothers in the world

A left fist brandishing an e-cigarette. The World Vapers’ Alliance logo borrows from revolutionary imagery, but it is a radical right-wing revolution that the movement aspires to. Even hidden behind thick curtains of smoke, money always leaves a trace.

In addition to cigarette manufacturers, some of the CCC’s benefactors, mentioned only in a remote corner of its website, give a glimpse of an even more complex reality. They gravitate in a most obscure galaxy, developed during the last decades by a group of American billionaires still largely unknown in Europe.

At their head: the Koch brothers. David, who died in 2019, left his 58-year-old widow, Julia, his twenty-seventh place on Forbes magazine’s list of the world’s richest people. He shared this rank with his brother Charles, 86 years old, alive and well, and now at the helm of a right-wing political project so extreme that William F. Buckley himself, a figure of American conservatism, has described it as “anarcho-totalitarianism”.

The Koch brothers have extracted their immense fortune primarily from the exploitation of fossil fuels. With its oil refineries, pipelines and coal mines, Koch Industries had $115 billion in revenue in 2019. The largest private company in the United States, Koch Industries also manufactures carpets, airbags, Dixie disposable products, nylon, glass, plastics lawn chairs or toilet paper, and has interests in chemicals and fertilizers, food and finance, paper and livestock. As a privately held company, Koch Industries is not required to report on its finances or activities to shareholders. This culture of secrecy is the Koch brothers’ trademark.

“One of the people who worked for them said: ‘they aren’t just under the radar. They are completely underground’”, says New Yorker reporter Jane Mayer. Author of the groundbreaking book that gave a detailed account of their activities, Dark Money: The hidden history of the billionaires behind the rise of the radical right (Doubleday, 2016), she explains that the two billionaires, “have been pioneers of astroturf politics in America, of pouring dark money into organisations that can’t easily be traced to them, in order to buy influence and manipulate politics.”

Charles and David then set about “weaponizing philanthropy” to wage their “war of ideas”, as Jane Mayer put it

The Koch brothers are among the big money men of climate skepticism. Greenpeace calculated that their family foundations had contributed more than 127 million euros to ninety entities to attack climate science between 1997 and 2018. They are also the biggest funders of the radical libertarian cause in the US.

Often mistakenly referred to as ultra-liberalism, libertarianism is characterized by a visceral hostility to any government intervention that, as a “nanny state”, dictates life choices to individuals. Fighting for the abolition of taxes, social welfare and medical assistance programs, this movement advocates minimal control of business and industrial activities, especially in the environmental field.

In fact, to save his sons from colossal inheritance taxes, Frederick Koch put millions of dollars into philanthropic foundations before his death in 1967. Charles and David then set about “weaponizing philanthropy” to wage their “war of ideas,” as Jane Mayer put it.

The Kochs have gathered around their ideological project several dozen billionaire families who use the same tax facilities to preserve their fortunes: Scaife (Mellon Bank and Gulf Oil), Bradley (defense), Olin (chemicals and munitions), Coors (breweries) and DeVos (Amway). A network so tentacular that it is dubbed “Kochtopus”.

For decades, the foundations of these invisible riches have been channeling millions of their tax-free generosity into a myriad of foundations and think tanks, which in turn fund organisations, consultants, and pundits whose seemingly independent words in the media shape public debate and ensure the dissemination of their ideas. A system of Russian dolls of infernal complexity which, according to Jane Mayer, has “changed America”. Will it now change the world?

Embrace of the “Kochtopus”

Tucked up against the Burberry trench coat he folded on the back of his chair, Fred Roeder confesses it: he vapes watermelon flavour. A funny detail when you know that “watermelon” is a standard insult to designate ecologists and progressives (presumed Greens on the outside, but Reds on the inside) in the libertarian universe, where the fear of socialism often borders on paranoia.

Although the Consumer Choice Center operates in Europe, it is headquartered in the United States, where it is registered as a 501(c) nonprofit organisation. The countless entities funded by the Koch brothers and their allies favor this status, which exempts them from a large number of taxes while allowing them to keep the identity of their donors secret.

Before he is even asked, CCC director Fred Roeder anticipates: “You’ll probably at some point ask me: ‘do we receive money from (the Koch brothers)?’ No! I have asked many times”, says the man who describes himself as an unimportant creature at the “bottom of the food chain”“they really aren’t interested in what’s going on outside the United States in terms of public policy.”

CCC’s history and bookkeeping however, are closely linked to a key organisation in the Koch system: Students for Liberty. In charge of educating the next generation of libertarians, the group was initiated by a recipient of a Summer fellowship from the Charles Koch Institute in 2007. Since then, it has spent its annual budget of 3.5 million euros, in their own words“identifying those young people who are already supportive of liberty and providing them with resources to spread the ideas.”

Selected funding sources of the Consumer Choice Center

Sources: Altria, Consumer Choice Center.

Also registered as a 501(c), Students for Liberty has not disclosed its funders since 2016, but an analysis of hundreds of pages of US tax records shows that it has received more than 1 million euros from organisations directly linked to Charles Koch and his allies over the past five years (Charles Koch Foundation, Charles Koch Institute, Donors Trust, Donors Capital Fund).

Throughout the interview, Fred Roeder continually downplays his connection to Students for Liberty. Yet the CCC itself was originally a Students for Liberty project; the two organisations shared the same address for a long time. For nine years, until the CCC officially spun off from its big sister, in April 2020, Fred Roeder held important responsibilities at Students for Liberty, co-founding its European branch. Ten members of the CCC team, including his right-hand man Yaël Ossowski, also held positions there, such as “international development manager” or “director of European programmes”, for example.

Atlas Network is at the heart of the apparatus for spreading libertarian ideology around the world

An additional, stealthier link connects Fred Roeder to Students for Liberty. The young entrepreneur owns a company domiciled in Tallinn (Estonia), Healthcare Solutions, which has received more than 600,000 euros from Students for Liberty since 2015 for a consulting activity. That is to say, the major part of its annual revenue. Another consultant, Jeff Stier, a regular on American television, has received over 200,000 euros through the same channel. Stier is a senior fellow at the CCC.

“It sounds like a major front group,” exclaims New Yorker reporter Jane Mayer. “A spontaneous movement of political sentiment just springing up from the people that suddenly feel that they need to have vaping in order to fight tobacco? It’s a joke”, she said with a laugh. “It’s a shame that we’re exporting our sort of political corruption from America to the rest of the world! ”

Overplaying sudden tiredness with a theatrical yawn, Fred Roeder left the Goose Island Pub before questions on financial matters were even asked. Our emailed questions were not answered.

Like almost all of the free market nonprofits and think tanks mentioned in this investigation, the CCC and Students for Liberty are also partners in a worldwide umbrella organisation, Atlas Network. The CCC received a 14,000 euros grant in 2018, in support of “their ongoing work to ease trade in response to the rise in protectionist rhetoric and actions taken by notable world leaders during that period,” as Atlas Network acknowledged in an email. Students for Liberty has received over half a million euros since 2010, according to tax records.

Based in Washington, D.C., Atlas Network is at the heart of the apparatus for spreading libertarian ideology around the world. It connects a dizzying 500 organisations in 98 countries. Its “vision”it explains, is that of “a free, prosperous, and peaceful world where the principles of individual liberty, property rights, limited government, and free markets are secured by the rule of law”. Its “mission” is to “strengthen” this network of think tanks “that promote individual freedom and are committed to identifying and removing barriers to human flourishing.”

On a daily basis, Atlas Network trains a small army of propagandists. In this ecosystem, everything is meticulously accounted for: the organisation boasts of having trained nearly 4,000 people in 2020, while its Atlas network academy has prepared “884” individuals to work in think tanks.

These headquarters of libertarianism redistribute large amounts of American cash outside the continent: nearly 4 million euros in 2020, of which more than 1 million is destined for Europe. Its financial resources – 12,6 million euros in 2020 – come mainly from “Kochtopus” organisations. Over the past five years, according to our calculations, Atlas Network has received more than 390,000 euros from the Charles Koch Foundation and the Charles Koch Institute, over one million from Donors Trust, and 180,000 euros from the Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation.

Selected donations from the Koch galaxy to Students for Liberty and Atlas Network over the past five years

Source: US tax records.

In addition, there is money from cigarette companies, “strategic allies” of Atlas Network, according to the analysis of a team of researchers from the Simon Fraser University in Burnaby (Canada), published in an academic journal in 2016. More than a third of Atlas Network’s American partners have received funding from Philip Morris, RJ Reynolds or the Tobacco Institute, American manufacturers’ pseudo institute. Corporate support, however, represents “less than 2% of the total donations received in 2020”, assures Atlas Network, and is limited to “sponsorship of our annual gala dinner, another common practice for nonprofit organisations in the United States.”

Anti-government alliance

“The Koch brothers’ networks have a longstanding partnership with the tobacco companies,” says Stanton Glantz, an emeritus professor of medicine at the University of California, San Francisco. Pragmatic above all, this alliance actually dates back to the 1980s. The Cigarette Papers, millions of pages of internal documents made public following litigation in the US, digitally archived under Glantz’s supervision until his recent retirement, have enabled him and his colleagues to reconstruct the origin of the alliance.

It was from the tobacco industry that the Koch brothers’ networks learned astroturfing tactics, the researchers describe in a 2014 paper published in the journal Tobacco Control. To prevent taxes and regulation aimed at curbing smoking, cigarette companies, with little credibility in the public debate, wanted to give “the appearance of broad opposition to tobacco control policies by attempting to create a grassroots smokers’ rights movement.” They then turned to libertarian groups, which had much broader public support, and paid them, somewhat like service providers, to carry their common ideology.

“Anything that builds the power of the Koch networks is good for the tobacco companies,” according to Stanton Glantz

“The Koch brothers’ networks obviously don’t need the tobacco industry’s money,” says Glantz, “but they both hate regulation and they’re both trying to block government action on a wide range of activities. So they have a strong common interest. Anything that builds the power of the Koch networks is good for the tobacco companies because it supports a anti-regulatory, anti-tax, anti-health framework.”

Their plan: to form parallel “grassroots” coalitions and alliances on a “national, intellectual track” to influence Washington. “Ultimately, we are talking about a ‘movement,’ a national effort to change the way people think about government’s (and big business’) role in our lives,” explained Tim Hyde, an executive at cigarette manufacturer RJ Reynolds, in a seminal 1990 memo.

Until 2004, the tobacco lobby hid behind the façade of the Koch brothers’ main organisation, Citizens for a Sound Economy. Movements like “Get Government Off Our Back” and “Enough is Enough” laid the groundwork for an alliance of interests that would later lead to the funding of the Tea Party. This protest movement opposed to taxes and public spending, which arose in early 2009 to torpedo “Obamacare”, President Obama’s health care reform project, was not initially spontaneous. It derived directly from “decades of astroturfing by tobacco and other corporate interests,” deployed for the sole purpose of “supporting their corporate agenda,” according to Stanton Glantz and his colleagues.

Do their common economic interests breed ideology, or is it the other way around? “The answer is both,” says Jane Mayer. “Their ideology is a justification for their business practices and vice versa. They turned what is basically their marketing strategy into a pretend political movement. They make it into a matter of principle to hide that it’s actually a matter of profit.”

For Stanton Glantz, the great manoeuvres around the promotion of electronic devices and “tobacco harm reduction” revealed by our investigation are a “continuation” of this project set up four decades ago. With one difference: an increased degree of sophistication. “Whereas in the early days the industry connections were buried by one or two layers of complication, now we probably have five or six layers so it makes it harder and harder to expose them.”

The Internationale of free market and free vape

When the “Kochtopus” orchestra begins to play, a huge echo chamber spreads the libertarian ideology under the guise of defending a consumer’s freedom to be a smoker yesterday, and a vaper today.

They launch campaigns and hashtags. They quote, translate, republish, retweet and like each other. One is a fellow here, and another a guest to a podcast or an online debate there. They publish articles and op-eds in major media outlets, sometimes even in Le MondeAtlas Network claims over 20,000 media mentions in 2020, and the Consumer Choice Center over 1,000.

To reach public opinion, sites providing free information act as sounding boards. This is the case, for example, of Vaping Today or InsideSources – the latter’s publisher has a dog named Milton “after his favorite economist”, the libertarian icon Milton Friedman. Inside Sources contributors include the CCC and fellows of various Kochtopus think tanks – such as the Competitive Enterprise Institute, the R Street Institute or the Taxpayers Protection Alliance. Its funding is unknown.

While it is not always possible to know who is the other’s Russian doll in this complex web, it is possible to unravel the way these entities interact. In this respect, the case of the Taxpayers Protection Alliance, an American anti-tax nonprofit of typical libertarian observance, is eloquent in understanding the unwritten rules of this game of influence.

Taxpayers Protection Alliance is chaperoning IGO Watch, a campaign demanding greater transparency at the WHO, a “corrupt bureaucracy”, or be subject to having its financial contribution from the United States cut off. The twenty or so grassroots movements that belong to it are mostly libertarian groups disguised as taxpayers’ protection associations. Among them: the CCC.

The funding of the Taxpayers Protection Alliance, which has an annual budget of 3,5 million euros, is highly opaque. “Out of respect for their privacy, we don’t disclose who does or doesn’t donate to TPA,” the organisation’s president David Williams, explains in an email. But their recent interest in the issue of vaping and the background of its leaders leave little doubt about their motives.

Two of them are from the conservative group FreedomWorks, an offshoot of the Koch brothers’ Citizens for a Sound Economy and a key Tea Party supporter. On the vaping side, the key person is Lindsey Stroud. Since May 2021, she’s been running the Taxpayers Protection Alliance’s brand-new Consumer Center,” which includes a section dedicated to “tobacco harm reduction”. A board member of an e-cigarette manufacturers’ trade organisation, she blogs about “harm reduction basics”, writes reports, and is very active on Twitter. One of the Summer guests on her podcast “Across the Pond” was Yaël Ossowski, the CCC’s number two.

Until 2020, Lindsey Stroud worked for the Heartland Institute. Notorious for spearheading climate skepticism, this think tank funded by the Koch brothers’ networks still promotes a brochure that guarantees to “never lose a debate with a global warming alarmist!”.

Seventeen Atlas Network partner organisations are engaged in « tobacco harm reduction »

The Heartland Institute does not disclose its financial supporters “as a matter of policy,” but its history with the tobacco industry dates back to the 1990s, with funding from Philip Morris, while Altria has been lavishing donations on it since the early 2010s. Its online “consumer freedom lounge” that promotes electronic cigarettes recommends as an expert… Jeff Stier, the CCC consultant paid by Students for Liberty, who is also senior fellow for Taxpayers Protection Alliance. Back to the start.

Le Monde and The Investigative Desk have identified seventeen Atlas Network partner organisations engaged in lobbying or propaganda for “tobacco harm reduction” and vaping. Our investigation shows that almost all of them have received money from the tobacco industry, including twelve in the last five years.

Atlas Network partner organisations engaged in “tobacco harm reduction”

Sources: Altria, Atlas Network, British Medical Journal, Consumer Choice Center, Tobacco Tactics.

Interconnected within this network, some self-claimed “grassroots” vapers’ movements such as the World Vapers’ Alliance provide a legitimate front in the most visible layer. Recently created, they disseminate talking points and arguments in the heart of the consumer community through sites dedicated to vaping and social networks.

In Ireland, Respect Vapers is entirely funded by the Edmund Burke Institute, a libertarian think tank that considers “nanny statism” “undemocratic and infantilising”. In Britain, We Vape appears to be represented only by its director, a fellow of the Adam Smith Institute. Both “institutes” are Atlas Network partners. In Canada, Rights4Vapers, also on a bus tour, counts among its official supporters the director of the World Vapers’ Alliance, Michael Landl, and that of the Taxpayers Protection Alliance.

The “war of ideas” against the WHO

European regulations are obviously not the only object of interest of this ultra-organised global propaganda machine, where social networks provide support for a 21st century version of astroturfing. For several years, the World Health Organization (WHO) has been the target of fierce attacks coordinated by the network.

In 2003, WHO’s Framework Convention on Tobacco Control put up a Chinese wall around policymakers. Article 5.3 of this international treaty, to which 182 countries now adhere, requires them to keep their public health policies free from interference by the tobacco industry, a persona non grata at the table. According to the treaty, there is a “fundamental and irreconcilable conflict” between public health and the interests of the tobacco industry, whose products will kill a billion people this century if current trends are not reversed.

Every two years, the meetings of the Conference of the Parties (COP) of the Framework Convention are peppered with incidents staged by groups from this tobacco money-fuelled libertarian nebula, Students for Liberty and the CCC in particular. Relayed by allied websites and Twitter accounts, they accuse the WHO of rejecting “tobacco harm reduction”, and of excluding the public and the media from the negotiation rooms… obviously reserved for officials and diplomats of the official delegations.

Unable to break into meetings, the pro-vape libertarian movement has changed tactics and is now trying to sneak in through the backdoor

In 2016 in New Delhi (India), Fred Roeder was already there when representatives of Students for Liberty disrupted COP7 and broke into a meeting, placards at arm’s length. In 2018 in Geneva (Switzerland), Fred Roeder and Yael Ossowski organised a side event at COP8 for the CCC“Nicotine is not your enemy”, and got accredited as journalists thanks to their contributions to libertarian news sites.

COP9 will be held online from the WHO headquarters in Geneva, starting November 8th, and it will be the last stop on the World Vapers’ Alliance minibus tour, which has planned a “surprise”. Another operation is targeting the conference this year. But it is on an unprecedented scale. Unable to break into meetings, the pro-vape libertarian movement has changed tactics and is now trying to sneak in through the backdoor. Its idea: to get “tobacco harm reduction” experts and vapers into the official delegations, especially the one from the UK, freed by Brexit from the EU’s commitments to the Framework Convention.

The main manoeuvre took place behind the scenes in the UK Parliament. In the spring of 2021, an All-party parliamentary group on vaping called for the UK Department of Health delegation to COP9 “to be strengthened by experts with real-world experience, and even former smokers, who can attest to the benefits of vaping and other reduced-risk products.” If not, the government should consider “dramatically scaling back our funding” to the WHO, warned the group, whose vice-chairman Conservative Matt Ridley, is a strong vaping supporter.

Similar to those of the libertarian sphere, these arguments did not arrive there by accident. Managed until 2020 by the UK Vaping industry association (UKVIA), a lobbying organisation that represents the interests of transnational tobacco companies, this informal group sought expert advice for several weeks to inform its thinking.

The list of contributions could be used as the end credits of this investigation.

In addition to Japan Tobacco International, Imperial brands and Juul, the cast included the Consumer Choice Center, We Vape, the Adam Smith Institute and the Institute of Economic Affairs, notoriously funded by the tobacco industry. Less expected: several American organisations, such as Taxpayers Protection Alliance, Property Rights Alliance (Americans for Tax Reform) and, in Charles Koch’s network, the Reason Foundation.

COP9 will open in a few days, and initiatives are multiplying. A deluge of missives has been sent to national delegations and the WHO. A letter to US President Joe Biden asks the US delegation to advocate for “tobacco harm reduction”. The twenty or so signatory organisations, led by the Taxpayers Protection Alliance, include the CCC and another group stemming from Students for Liberty.

Sources: Altria, Atlas Network, British Medical Journal, Consumer Choice Center, Tobacco Tactics; US tax records.

Hidden in the wisps of the toxic merchandise of the cigarette companies and the refineries of the Koch empire, sponsored by their opaque millions, this small army feeds a project of which the public sees only a tiny part. What does it intend to accomplish under the pretext of freedom? According to the tweets, brochures and minds, at least, the dream is the abolition of all forms of public control over the world of business.

Our methodology

To carry out this investigation and map the libertarian vaping network, Le Monde and The Investigative Desk used a wide variety of tools and documentary sources:

Some documents that are not available online can be seen on DocumentCloud.

All links containing information that can be changed or deleted have been saved in the Internet Wayback Machine.

Specific questions and requests for comments were sent to 24 organisations and individuals. Only Atlas Network, Heartland Institute, Institute of Economic Affairs, Students for Liberty, Taxpayers Protection Alliance et Smoke Free Alternatives Trade Association (SFATA) responded or acknowledged receipt.

Other non-profits and think tanks solicited were: Adam Smith Institute, American Consumer Institute: Center for Citizen Research, Competitive Enterprise Institute, Edmund Burke Institute, Geneva Network, Property Rights Alliance / Americans for Tax Reform (and Foundation), Reason Foundation, R Street Institute; vaper organisations We Vape, Respect Vapers, and Rights4Vapers; consultant Jeff Stier.

Charles Koch did not respond to our request for comment.

Concerning the tobacco and nicotine delivery device industry, British American Tobacco and Atria responded, but not Japan Tobacco International or Juul. After many exchanges, Philip Morris International finally did not wish to respond. “We have asked—as is the right of any individual or organisation in a free democracy—why you have requested this information,” said a Philip Morris media relations officer. “It is with regret that your team has refused to provide these details and that, therefore, we cannot take your request further.”

#BigTobacco21: an investigative series

#BigTobacco21 is a long-term cross-border investigation launched in November 2020 by Le Monde and The Investigative Desk (Netherlands), aiming to untangle the tobacco industry’s strategies for the 21st century. This publication was developed with the support of grants from and the Investigative Journalism for Europe (IJ4EU) fund.

Episode 1 (in French):

Episode 2 (in French):

Episode 3: