UN memo points to the tobacco industry’s enduring influence
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UN memo points to the tobacco industry’s enduring influence

Wednesday, 07 August 2019
This is an opinion article by an external contributor. The views belong to the writer.

Michael Moller, the outgoing head of the United Nations (UN) office in Geneva, made quite a splash when, on his last day on the job, he published a letter to UN Secretary-General António Guterres recommending the UN soften its opposition to working with the tobacco industry.

Top UN officials are banned from liaising with tobacco industry representatives on any type of joint initiative, but that hasn’t stopped lobbyists from quietly pushing their agenda within the organisation. Moller’s memo has once again fuelled speculation that the influence of tobacco giants is becoming more pervasive in the UN and the World Health Organisation (WHO).

The slippery slope

Moller’s recommendation that the UN disregard the spirit and the letter of the landmark Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (FCTC) treaty by taking a more “nuanced” approach is an alarming position for a UN official to adopt. It also eerily echoes tobacco industry talking points, reflecting the influence the industry still manages to exert on policymakers at the highest possible levels in Geneva. It’s a coup for representatives of major tobacco corporations, who have consistently asked for a “seat at the table.”

The introduction of the FCTC in 2005 was designed to reduce tobacco consumption by side-lining industry influence and prohibiting partnerships between governments and international bodies (like the United Nations and the European Union) and industry operators. Interestingly, Switzerland is one of only thirteen countries to have failed to ratify the FCTC, despite signing up to the convention in 2004; that may be because the country is also home to three of the world’s biggest tobacco firms. Between them, Philip Morris International (PMI), British American Tobacco (BAT) and Japan Tobacco International (JTRI) collectively contribute $6.4 billion a year to the Swiss economy.

The tobacco industry representatives insist that all they are after is a platform for presenting their views, but past experience makes it abundantly clear that the tobacco industry is always on the lookout for conduits to influence public health policy and decisions. Moller’s position that the “blanket exclusion” of the tobacco industry from international public health deliberations may be “counterproductive” to broader goals would in fact open the door for Big Tobacco to undermine global anti-smoking measures.

Gaming the system

From burying early reports that tobacco is tied to cancer, to smuggling its own products and going to remarkable lengths to thwart and shape the FCTC and the EU’s Tobacco Product Directive (TPD), the industry has a long and sordid history of looking after its own interests by whatever means necessary.

As soon as a link was established between smoking and lung cancer in the 1950s, the tobacco industry launched a counter-offensive to push an alternative story. Its narrative insisted that the link remained unproven, even going so far as to set up a pseudo-scientific research body – the Council for Scientific Research (CTR) – with its credo of “association cannot prove causation.”

The industry has recycled this tactic with the creation of a new organisation, the Foundation for a Smoke-Free World (FSFW), that will receive $80 million annually from PMI to promote a “smoke free” world. Pointing to the industry’s level of access to senior UN staff, FSFW is led by Derek Yach, who formerly served as executive director for noncommunicable diseases at the WHO. In addition to directly bankrolling these types of “independent” organizations, the industry also collaborates with institutions like the OECD and the World Economic Forum to promote its messages and improve its own image.

This outreach is carefully calibrated to serve these companies’ commercial interests. How will the FSFW, for example, advocate for the elimination of its top donor’s main product? By moving consumers to PMI’s supposedly “less risky heated tobacco solutions. Philip Morris proudly points to the traditional cigarette factories it has converted to produce these products, but has been less vocal about its aggressive promotion of new cigarette brands in “untapped markets” like Indonesia.

Transnational tobacco companies have also resorted to more unethical steps to boost their revenues. There’s plenty of historical evidence to show industry complicity in smuggling enterprises, where cigarettes are supplied to the black market and subsequently smuggled into countries without paying appropriate duty. Since the advent of the FCTC and its Protocol to Eliminate Illicit Trade in Tobacco Products, which provides for measures to combat precisely this type of smuggling, the so-called “Big Four” have consistently tried to insert themselves into the track and trace protocols designed to thwart illicit trade – all while running covert campaigns to weaken the FCTC’s provisions or sabotage its entry into force.

The fox in the hen house

These tactics have already notched up major wins for the industry. As a result of interference from the tobacco sector and its proxy organizations, the process to revise the European Union’s Tobacco Products Directive (TPD) took over five years to complete.

By the time it was finally completed, a number of key measures had been weakened. Researchers at the University of Bath described the TPD as “the most lobbied dossier” in the EU’s history. Teams of lobbyists were employed to water down the proposals, while front groups were created to conceal the tobacco industry’s interests. The much delayed rollout of the EU’s track and trace system has been continually bedevilled by its association with the tobacco industry, with the sector pushing the EU to adopt its in-house solution – known first as Codentify and then as Inexto – in violation of the FCTC’s provisions. Despite criticism from NGOs over the system’s compliance with the FCTC, the industry has pushed governments worldwide to adopt its preferred, and evidently compromised, system.

Given all of this history, and despite the claim by Moller’s former chief of staff that the memo was simply meant to “raise the question of effectiveness in implementing the SDGs,” the idea that the tobacco industry is trustworthy enough for the UN to engage with is naïve at best.

Igor Pliner