The World Health Organization issued a call for governments around the world to basically boycott tobacco giant Philip Morris International’s proposed anti-smoking foundation, citing a glaring conflict of interest.

World Health Organization Flag.

The WHO’s flag.
Image credits Flickr / United States Mission Geneva.

Earlier this month, Philip Morris International pledged US$80 million per year for the next 12 years towards the creation of the Foundation for a Smoke-Free World, a non-profit organization. This Thursday, the World Health Organization responded by calling on governments to not get involved with the foundation, and for the public to basically not trust what it says.

Smoking money

The WHO (UN’s public health body) sensibly decided that there’s an inescapable conflict of interest in big tobacco funding such research. Moreover, the WHO says we already have proven techniques at our disposal to tackle smoking, such as taxation, graphic warning labels, advertising bans, and creative campaigns. Measures which (coincidence?) tobacco companies have vehemently opposed in the past.

“WHO will not partner with the Foundation. Governments should not partner with the Foundation and the public health community should follow this [tried and true approach to tackling smoking],” it said.

The foundation will be headed by Derek Yach, a former senior official at the WHO has been a notable advocate for the switch to e-cigarettes that heat, rather than burn, nicotine-packed substances — a.k.a vapes. He wasn’t very happy with the WHO’s views, saying more and closer cooperation is required to fight smoking.

“I am deeply disappointed, therefore, by WHO’s complete mischaracterisation of the nature, structure and intent of the Foundation in its recent statements – and especially by its admonition to others not to work together.”

He adds that the foundation is a non-profit, with strict rules set in place to keep the tobacco industry from meddling in its internal workings, and whose research would be subjected to peer review. Although the foundation is supposedly independent, the tobacco giant is so far its only contributor.

Smoking gun

Personally, I think the WHO made the right choice here. We’ve seen before that corporations — especially those whose product can cause a lot of damage to consumers in the long run, like alcohol, tobacco, fossil fuels, and let’s do fossil fuel again — have a history of funding shady or outright false research to promote their own ends. Peer-review isn’t always effective in sifting through the bogus papers, and even a single such work gets magnified and constantly cited when the issue finds its way in public discussions.

The timing of PMI’s commitment is also a bit suspicious. Through the first quarter of 2017, their “cigarette shipment volumes fell by 11.5% year-on-year, but its heated tobacco shipments were up almost ten-fold — overall, unit shipments were down 9.4% and net revenues were down 1.4%,” Fortune wrote earlier this month.

Funding research bodies to investigate “a better choice” in smoking, one that would help “accelerate smoker adoption of less harmful alternatives” kinda sounds more like an “hey here is some money, prove vaping is safe,” doesn’t it? Especially when it comes from a tobacco company who’s seeing a cigarette sales drop but e-cigarette sales on the rise.

PMI also said its contributions depended on the foundation’s “requirements and operations,” which sure, could mean just that — but it could also be a veiled threat to withhold future funding if the foundation doesn’t deliver.

So what do you think? Let us know in the comments.

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