Philip Morris International announced today that they have pledged $1 billion to work towards a smoke-free world. Some are inclined to greet this announcement with applause; but this venture should instead be viewed with a critical eye and a healthy amount of skepticism.
PMI’s financial contribution created a new organization called The Foundation for a Smoke-Free World, whose mission claims to be “to accelerate global efforts to reduce health impacts and deaths from smoking, with the goal of ultimately eliminating smoking worldwide.” The Foundation “collaborates with other non-profit, advocacy and government organizations to advance smoking cessation and harm-reduction science and technology. It also serves as a convener of research, dialogue and ideas to reduce smoking globally, while monitoring, evaluating and helping to address the impact of reduced smoking rates on agriculture and economics.”
To the average person, these goals sound well-intentioned. To those of us in public health, they sound suspicious.
The tobacco industry has a long history of working to undermine and subvert scientific research. In 1954, tobacco companies formed the Tobacco Industry Research Committee, allegedly to fund independent research on smoking and lung cancer. Internal industry documents have now shown that the true purpose of this group was to spread doubt and convince the public that dangers of smoking were not proven.
In 2006, Judge Kessler concluded in United States v. Philip Morris that Big Tobacco “suppressed, concealed, and terminated scientific research; they destroyed documents including scientific reports and studies; and they repeatedly and intentionally improperly asserted the attorney-client and work product privileges over many thousands of documents (not just pages) to thwart disclosure to plaintiffs in smoking and health related litigation and to federal regulatory agencies, and to shield those documents from the harsh light of day.” The Court found that the fraud continues to this day.
This behavior by the tobacco industry is so widespread and well-known that the global tobacco treaty, the WHO Framework Convention on Tobacco Control, includes an Article (Article 5.3) designed to prevent further fraud and manipulation by the tobacco industry. Article 5.3 states, “In setting and implementing their public health policies with respect to tobacco control, Parties shall act to protect these policies from commercial and other vested interests of the tobacco industry in accordance with national law.” The first guiding principle for this article truly says it all, “There is a fundamental and irreconcilable conflict between the tobacco industry’s interests and public health policy interests.”
Any government or organization that works with PMI’s new foundation is violating the spirit of Article 5.3 and should be barred from any conference or activity that requires a disclosure of tobacco industry funding, such as the upcoming World Conference on Tobacco or Health (WCTOH).
Unfortunately, it seems extremely unlikely that PMI will be making good on their promise to eliminate smoking worldwide. PMI has already made public statements since the middle of the last century saying that if cigarettes were ever found to be causing harm they would stop making them. So nothing has changed.
In reading PMI’s reports, it seems that their strategy is to continue to make as much money out of traditional, combustible cigarettes as possible, especially in low and middle income countries which they call “emerging markets,” while launching their “heat not burn” product, IQOS and promoting a regulatory environment and culture that normalizes nicotine addiction. While heat not burn products may be less harmful than cigarettes, they are not harmless. There is a huge concern that they will addict new consumers; consumers who would never have begun smoking cigarettes or become addicted to nicotine.
We are concerned that PMI’s goal is not to merely transition current smokers to IQOS, but rather to ensure that a large percentage of the world’s population is again addicted to nicotine through IQOS. PMI’s Foundation for a Smoke-Free World could be a dangerous step in that direction. We should treat this foundation no differently than we treat Philip Morris International- with caution and skepticism at every turn.