“Don’t be a Maybe,” the ad reads. A young guitarist leaps, mid-strum, in front of the raised arms of an adoring audience. “Be Marlboro,” the ad concludes. Philip Morris International (PMI), the tobacco corporation behind this worldwide 2014 “Be Marlboro” campaign, vigorously denied it was targeting youth. The corporation just … happened … to be throwing “Be Marlboro” DJ parties and featuring young, sexy people in its YouTube videos.
Oh, ok. Right.
So forgive us for not taking PMI’s word for it when it assures us that the foundation it started last year, and is currently the sole funder of, will be an independent entity advancing public health.
This week PMI celebrates a “successful” year — that is, billions in profit at the expense of millions of lives — at its annual shareholders’ meeting in New York City. We thought this would be the perfect time to take a look at just how the so-called Foundation for a Smoke-Free World is advancing PMI’s deadly agenda — and what we’re doing about it.
PMI drives and profits from the tobacco epidemic
First, let’s be clear: Addicting people to tobacco products is how PMI makes its billions. As exemplified by the “Be Marlboro” campaign, PMI aggressively markets tobacco to young people in order to turn them into customers for life. The corporation also targets women and people in what the industry calls “expansion markets” — parts of the world with large youth populations and a quickly expanding middle class.
And, PMI actively seeks to undermine public health measures proven to reduce smoking. The corporation engaged in a long, costly, and ultimately unsuccessful legal battle with Uruguay, which was trying to implement a comprehensive, lifesaving public health and tobacco control policy. And, for years, PMI has attempted to weaken the global tobacco treaty through a vast, clandestine campaign. An exposé by Reuters last year described it as “an offensive that stretches from the Americas to Africa to Asia, from hardscrabble tobacco fields to the halls of political power.”
The foundation as a proxy for PMI’s agenda
In their investigation, Reuters reporters got a hold of thousands of internal PMI strategy documents. Through them, we have a glimpse of the tactics PMI employs to undermine the global tobacco treaty — including “shaping public opinion,” which is further described as “the ability to find the right spin.”
Enter the Foundation for a Smoke-Free World, which is nothing less than a nearly $1 billion corporate social responsibility (CSR) vehicle for PMI to help “shape public opinion” and provide the “right spin.” It’s clear that PMI seeks to muddy the waters of scientific research, gain access to high-level policymaking spaces, and advance its brand through the foundation.
For example, a leaked email sent by the president of the foundation, Derek Yach, in December made grant offers to officials at the World Health Organization (WHO) and other United Nations agencies without revealing that the sole source of funding was from PMI. How better to gain access to the powerful policymaking that happens at these global organizations?
But the email was also sent to three PMI employees, demonstrating clear evidence of close ties between PMI and the foundation. Jonathan Liberman, Director of the McCabe Centre for Law and Cancer, took a deep dive earlier this year into the arguments put forward by Yach regarding the foundation’s independence from PMI. It’s worth reading the whole article, but here’s Liberman’s conclusion:
Putting all this together, it would not be unreasonable to form a picture … one in which Yach’s ‘independent foundation’ is more akin to a program of Philip Morris, with Yach and the foundation’s directors, whoever these come to be [note: they were announced in February; see below], having a degree of day-to-day autonomy in their operations (just how much autonomy is unknowable), but with the fundamental settings put in place by, and enforced, by Philip Morris’s USD 960 million.
Tried-and-true pages from Big Tobacco’s playbook
The tobacco industry, and PMI in particular, has a long history of manipulating the public with CSR initiatives. From sending branded rescue teams during natural disasters in Indonesia, to giving away billions of dollars in scholarships, PMI employs CSR efforts across its brands to distract and deflect negative attention.
Big Tobacco also aggressively advances misleading information about the risks of their products. It started as early as the 1950s to bury the evidence of nicotine’s addictiveness and tobacco’s cancer-causing properties. The industry has used front groups (similar to the Foundation for a Smoke-Free World) to fund and disseminate its junk science. That’s why the WHO has no interest in the foundation: “This decades-long history means that research and advocacy funded by tobacco companies and their front groups cannot be accepted at face value.”
Leadership missing a critical constituent: tobacco control experts
A review of the foundation’s leadership gives us further evidence that this foundation has no intention of actually curbing the tobacco epidemic.
It’s true that President Yach was once the director of the WHO Tobacco-Free Initiative. But then he went on to be an executive at Pepsi — a transnational corporation driving another global health epidemic: diet-related disease. Since then, Yach has become an avid proponent of electronic cigarettes, which are widely acknowledged as dangerous to people’s health — especially youth. His reputation among the leading tobacco control experts and policymakers is so poor, he was barred from attending a global conference in March.
And a quick scan of the Board of Directors of the foundation reveals it to be heavy on representatives from the financial industry. It has zero members who represent the tobacco control community.
Public health advocates press on with powerful work
The good news in all of this is that the tobacco control community has no blinders on. From the moment the foundation’s creation was announced to the recent action to keep Yach out of the World Conference on Tobacco or Health, public health advocates are taking a strong stand.
We will not be distracted nor be divided in our commitment to implementing the lifesaving measures of the global tobacco treaty. And that includes strong adherence to Article 5.3, which prevents the tobacco industry and its proxies from interfering in policymaking. The WHO put it plainly:
When it comes to the Foundation for a Smoke-Free World, there are a number of clear conflicts of interest involved with a tobacco company funding a purported health foundation, particularly if it promotes sale of tobacco and other products found in that company’s brand portfolio. WHO will not partner with the foundation. Governments should not partner with the foundation and the public health community should follow this lead.
As we look forward to the next global tobacco treaty meetings this fall, we are holding the tobacco industry liable. So as PMI shareholders and executives congratulate each other on massive profits at the shareholders meeting this week, we have powerful plans in the works. One day, not too far in the future, governments will be able to reclaim those profits to help pay for the enormous medical and social costs that the tobacco industry has wrought.