Cozying-up in Switzerland – PMI-funded foundation’s Swiss branch

Consistent with the dual US-Swiss identity of Philip Morris International (PMI), the entity it funds, Foundation for Smoke-free World (Foundation), a USA registered group is now opening a branch in Switzerland.

In June, the Foundation announced that it will be setting up a branch in Switzerland, where PMI’s business is registered. PMI already funds about 10 institutions in Switzerland through its so-called CSR grants, including the Eliminating Child Labour in Tobacco Growing Foundation (ECLT) which is based in Geneva. Notably, the Foundation has hired the lawyers of Baker & Hostetler LLP, a law firm known to have represented Philip Morris in 2015. Working in parallel to the Foundation’s geographical spread to target global institutions is Philip Morris’ called on the communications, media and creative industries, including those that shunned it in the past, to embrace its smoke-free initiative.

According to the Foundation, the rationale for the branch location includes, “Switzerland hosts the WHO and a range of global health and development partnerships, is a global conference center, and provides easy travel links to other European centers which host some of the Foundation’s stakeholders.”

Linking to WHO

While the Foundation refers to the WHO and stakeholders so glibly, it has omitted the fact that WHO has issued a statement rejecting the Foundation and classifying it as part of the tobacco industry, considering that it promotes sale of tobacco and other products found in that company’s brand portfolio

The UN General Assembly has recognized a “fundamental conflict of interest between the tobacco industry and public health.” (1) WHO Member States have stated that “WHO does not engage with the tobacco industry or non-State actors that work to further the interests of the tobacco industry”, (2) the Organization will therefore not engage with this new Foundation.

WHO FCTC Secretariat also stated that “this tobacco industry-funded initiative .. a clear attempt to breach the WHO FCTC by interfering in public policy… aimed at damaging the treaty’s implementation, particularly through the Foundation’s contentious research programmes.

Increase in Tobacco Industry Interference at the WHO and UN Agencies

The Foundation’s new branch in Switzerland could back a pattern of increasing tobacco industry events that coincide with WHO and other FCTC and health related international gatherings. Often the same government officials are invited to both the FCTC and the industry related events. The industry strategy is to line-up its events and statements side-by-side with that of public health.

In June 2017 for example, the WHO FCTC Secretariat held a Global Meeting in Dar es Saalam collaboration with the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) and the World Health Organization (WHO) to discuss economically viable alternative activities for tobacco workers, growers and individual sellers, and the protection of the environment and the health of persons working in tobacco cultivation and manufacture. On the same days, in the same hotel, the tobacco industry front group, the International Tobacco Growers Association (ITGA) held its meeting, calling for a dialogue. PMI funds the ITGA.

In February 2018, while health ministry officials from the Eastern Mediterranean Region met in Beirut to discuss tobacco industry interference, at the same time the tobacco industry held its own meeting in Cairo with officials representing state tobacco monopolies to discuss challenges facing the tobacco industry.

In September 2018, as world leaders gather in New York for the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA), the CEO of PMI has used this occasion to speak at another event, Concordia Annual Summit, saying: “We are asking global leaders to enter into an honest, transparent dialogue with us.” Honesty and transparency are oxymorons to the tobacco industry. The tobacco industry’s call for transparency comes in stark contrast to the decades of hiding the truth about the harms of smoking, deceiving its own customers, not paying compensation for disease and deaths from tobacco, funding scientists/researchers to provide pro-industry evidence, undermining and suing governments for protecting public health.

Linking to Global Health and Development Partnerships

Among the Foundation’s key strategic framework is to build trust with key stakeholders and fund think tanks to do its work. Those who resisted working with big tobacco in the past may be taken-up by its new philanthropic face.

One can only imagine the possibilities of how the Foundation can use its funding to induce partnerships with global health actors and development agencies. Any global health actor or development partner for SDGs, that is not aware of the tobacco industry ties and current status of the Foundation with respect to the WHO, is at risk. Particularly at risk are those that are headquartered in Europe such as the UN Population Fund, FAO, or Health Action International and many more, unless such organizations have a firm policy against tobacco industry partnerships and are aware of the tobacco industry links of the Foundation.

Linking to European Centers hosting Foundation’s Stakeholders

The European centers that the Foundation is targeting with its Swiss branch has yet to be revealed. Consistent with its promotion of “alternative” tobacco products, the Foundation could be referring to allies that are supportive of vaping and the use of ENDS.

COP Action

On October 1-6, 2018, governments from 180 countries will be meeting in Geneva for the eighth session of the FCTC Conference of the Parties (COP8) to strengthen implementation of the FCTC. Considering that the Foundation has been classified by the WHO as part of the tobacco industry, Article 5.3 of the WHO FCTC and its Guidelines provides a good guide to dealing with potential outreach of the Foundation:

  1. Limit interaction unless strictly necessary for regulation: One can expect the Foundation to contact officials and health advocates about its smoke-free plans. The WHO FCTC Secretariat’s note verbal sends a warning and makes reference to the Foundation and points out industry efforts to damage tobacco control and jeopardize implementation of Article 5.3.
  2. Raise awareness: Research agencies, academe and civil society groups need to be warned as they can be attracted by “smoke free initiative” funding (RFP on Smoke-Free index) directly or indirectly through the Foundation’s “development partners” or European center” allies. Those planning to contribute to tobacco control policies must be more circumspect about the source of funding. A template letter to the target sector could be used to raise awareness. Parties should also monitor the Foundation’s outreach. It bears stressing that the Foundation will also focus on agricultural policies relating to tobacco.
  3. Reject partnerships and agreements: The Foundation is funding research to influence tobacco control policy and can be expected to move towards partnerships with governments in various sectors such as finance and agriculture. Parties must pre-empt this by reaching out to the non-health sectors to warn them.
  4. Denormalize so-called CSR of the tobacco industry. The work towards a “smoke free future” by PMI can be considered so-called CSR of the tobacco industry. Parties must undertake clear enforcement measures to reject such so-called CSR.
  5. Require information from the tobacco industry to be transparent and accountable. The tobacco industry, such as PMI, is working towards a “smoke free” future in conjunction with the work of the Foundation. Parties will have more clarity about links to the tobacco industry and the Foundation if it requires the tobacco industry to provide periodic reports on its marketing expenses, identity of consultants, etc as being done by some Parties like Uganda, Thailand, and France.

According to Dr Vera da Costa e Silva, head of the WHO FCTC Secretariat, “It is already clear that this tobacco industry-funded Foundation fits a long-established and sinister pattern of corporate chicanery. The industry’s aim, after all, is not to help its customers but to profit from them.”

For further information:

  1. Note verbal from the WHO FCTC Secretariat on implementation of Article 5.3
  2. GGTC: Countering the Foundation for a Smoke-Free World (FSFW)