An old adage in journalism states that when a dog bites a man, it’s not news. But when a man bites a dog, now, that’s news. Well, the proverbial man just bit the dog in the form of a nearly $1 billion pledge to reduce smoking from the maker of Marlboro cigarettes.
Philip Morris International will donate $80 million a year for the next 12 years to the recently launched Foundation for a Smoke-Free World. The new foundation stresses independence from its donors and their agendas, but so far, the company behind Marlboro is its only backer.
The donation comes as Philip Morris is said to be preparing for a smoke-free future. More than 3 million smokers have switched to the company’s e-cigarette IQOS, according to Bloomberg. IQOS heats tobacco to produce a vapor instead of burning it, which the company believes makes it less harmful than conventional cigarettes. The company asked the FDA to approve marketing that sells the product as a device that may reduce the chance of smoking-related diseases.
Derek Yach, the man heading the new foundation, is a vocal supporter of e-cigarettes. The devices, which don’t contain tar, provide a safer alternative for smokers to use while weaning themselves off traditional cigarettes, Yach wrote in a 2015 editorial. Opponents argue that “safer” is not the same as “safe,” and claim that e-cigarettes act as a gateway drug for conventional cigarettes.
Yach is a former World Health Organization official who led the organization’s campaigns against health issues arising from unhealthy diets and smoking. He worked on a global tobacco treaty while at the organization, but has a history of making deals with the devil in the name of progress. Yach worked for PepsiCo for six years after leaving WHO, where he says he pushed the company to make products healthier, including chips with less salt and fat and drinks with less sugar. It’s hard to miss the parallels to Yach’s latest endeavor and its backer.
The Philip Morris donation to the Foundation for a Smoke-Free World was met with skepticism from some.
Deborah Arnott, the CEO of Action on Smoking and Health, a public health charity based in the U.K., criticized the announcement. “Tobacco industry claims can never be accepted at face value,” she said. “The tobacco industry has a terrible track record of funding research designed to support its efforts to block policies to cut smoking.”
Arnott has a point. The tobacco industry has a long and checkered past in meddling in medical and research fields to benefit its bottom line. From the 1920s through the 1940s, the industry leaned heavily on advertising that claimed cigarettes were “physician approved.”
More recently, the industry funded research designed to support the claim that secondhand smoke posed no danger to non-smokers, a review of millions of pages of industry documents revealed. Research proving the opposite was used to support smoking bans in public and private places.
Some worry that the new foundation bankrolled by Philip Morris will also produce research and disseminate information that misleads the public. The International Union against Tuberculosis and Lung Disease denounced the gift as "a billion-dollar bribe the tobacco company hopes will secure it a seat at the table with public health policymakers around the world... Through propaganda, it only has the potential to undermine, delay and obfuscate the work of public health policymakers and advocates who champion evidence-based measures to reduce tobacco use." The Union said that the company will continue to spend exponentially more money to hook people in poor countries on smoking than on preventive efforts through the foundation.
Although smoking is on the decline in the U.S., tobacco use is still the leading preventable cause of death in the country, according the Center for Disease Control. Worldwide, tobacco kills about 6 million people a year, which is more than AIDS and malaria combined. The number is projected to rise to 8 million by 2030.
Despite that, there’s not a widespread effort among funders to curb smoking, which is another reason the Philip Morris gift is notable. The two biggest names in the space right now are Bloomberg Philanthropies and the Gates Foundation. Back in 2015, the two teamed up to take on companies like Philip Morris that sue low- and middle-income countries to prevent their governments from enforcing strong tobacco control laws.
The tobacco giant’s intentions and the young foundation’s integrity remain to be seen.