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Philip Morris & IBM IMPROVER project: downplaying links between smoking & disease

Chris Bostic Deputy Director for Policy

I wonder if Philip Morris International (PMI) researchers have studied the ‘length of public memory.’ If so, the resulting answer seems to be ‘about 15 years.’ That’s how long it has been since the Tobacco Institute closed its doors, after 40 years of obfuscating the science on tobacco addiction, disease and death. A key aspect of industry strategy to forestall meaningful regulation has always been to question the causal link between tobacco and disease.

PMI has just launched phase two of its sbv IMPROVER project (the title is short for “systems biology verification of industrial methodology for process verification in research”). The theme is “species translation challenge,” and PMI, in collaboration with technoogy giant IBM, will award three US$20,000 grants to scientists who can best poke holes in translating disease lab results in rodents to humans. In one online article very sympathetic to Philip Morris, the reporter states “not every smoker suffers all or any of those health effects, suggesting that a combination of environmental and genetic factors lead to disease.” This years project follows on the “diagnostic signature challenge,” in 2012 which gave a US$50,000 award for showing genetic markers for diseases linked to tobacco.

The main purpose of IMPROVER seems clear – remuddy the waters on the causal link between tobacco and disease. But they actually get much more. By enticing young researchers to compete, PMI pushes back against the trend among major universities to not do business with big tobacco. These researchers are also a natural recruitment pool for the next generation of scientists who are untroubled by the ethics of working with big tobacco. By linking with IBM, working with universities, and comparing the effort to legitimate scientific endeavors such as DREAM, PMI gains legitimacy among the scientific community.

Finally, IMPROVER is a rather brilliant example of corporate social responsibility marketing. Turning the purpose of the scheme on its head, PMI says its “number one objective is to do something about our dangerous products.” How can anyone argue with that? That’s not rhetorical – I invite responses on all the ways we can argue with that.

On a side note, is the name IMPROVER a subtle nod and affront to MPOWER?

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