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Philip Morris International pledges $1 billion to quit-smoking campaign

Big Tobacco giant Philip Morris International (PMI) has strangely committed $1 billion to the Foundation for a Smoke-Free World (FSFW), with the aim of “eliminating smoking worldwide”. The agreement, which will see PMI fund FSFW to the tune of $80 million annually over a 12-year period.

Derek Yach, founder and president-designate of FSFW made the surprise revelation at the Global Tobacco and Nicotine Forum in September in New York City. The organization intends to reduce deaths and harm caused by smoking around the world, harnessing new science and policy changes to fund a number of initiatives.

What does PMI hope to gain?

Surely PMI has another goal here than trying to stop people from smoking and go out of business. Nor could such a corporation realistically run a charm offensive campaign, and even if they did, spending $1 billion seems excessive. But according to the FSFW, Philip Morris will have no influence in the foundation’s work.

A press release from FSFW said that PMI will be unable to direct how the foundation operates due to the terms of the $1 billion grant. Moreover, FSFW claims that their studies will be completely independent and that they are free to publish any findings. Measures are also in place to prevent conflicts of interest between the foundation and its donors.

All of this sounds good – but what else could FSFW say about their alliance with PMI? Philip Morris does have a heat-not-burn harm-reduction device called the IQOS, but to spend $1 billion in the hope of favorable FSFW research would be exorbitant. PMI’s reduced-risk products are slightly different to those of their competitors.

Then there’s the chance that this really is an act of goodwill from PMI, with the pledge being unusually high, but still very feasible given the corporation’s annual profits of around $20 billion. Now Big Tobacco companies getting involved with reduced-risk nicotine products, perhaps they see reason to rebrand and improve their image.

PMI CEO Andre Calantzopoulos was bullish about the move in an interview with the Financial Times, saying, “We are standing at the cusp of a true revolution.” He continued about how PMI were “squarely focused” on offering consumers a better alternative and smoke-free products. It is brazen talk considering PMI has, for decades, sold cigarettes – a product with established serious health risks – to the public.

Move straight out of the Derek Yach playbook

The tobacco world and public health agencies have long been at odds, but in recent years there has been some demand for co-operation between two. Derek Yach, a prominent voice at the 2015 Global Forum on Nicotine (GFN), said then that he hoped for a PMI-FSFW-style alliance, and a bigger focus from tobacco companies on reduced-risk products. It seems that he has got his wish.

In that GFN keynote speech, Yach was supportive of Mitch Zeller, a stance which surprised many vapers who had little faith in the FDA taking a more relaxed stance toward vaping.

In 2016, vapers became even more doubtful about Yach as an ally, when he praised the FDA’s deeming regulations. The proposed legislation would have crippled vaping, taking the majority off the market in effectively an indirect ban. Yach gained a following for his performance in ‘A Billion Lives’, a highly-rated documentary film about vaping.

The reality is that Yach isn’t a ‘man of the people’, and has spent a career meandering around big business and establishment institutions. From a role at the Rockefeller Foundation to senior vice president at PepsiCo, Yach is a true insider. He also helped to set up the World Health Organization’s Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (FCTC), and Yach continues to serve on advisory boards for global companies.

So Yach is never going to be looking out for the little guy, which in vaping are independent vendors. Instead, he would favor an oligopoly-style market, with established big tobacco companies like PMI dominating with low-risk products such as the IQOS, a heat-not-burn technology product. Although we shouldn’t speculate too much and wait to see what course the FSFW takes.

However, even Yach himself recognizes that his manoeuvres are controversial and have split his vaping base. In a Financial Times interview, Yach spoke of his “motivation” to save lives, in an attempt to recapture the support of those wavering, rightfully sceptical of Big Tobacco gaining too big a presence in the vaping market.

Will vaping benefit from PMI and FSFW teaming up?

The Foundation for a Smoke-Free World isn’t going to concentrate on promoting independent vaping or small business vendors, but probably operate as a faceless, bureaucratic organization. We’ll know whether the FSFW is handing out favors when we see how they allocate their research dollars, and if heat-not-burn products get more attention than products that PMI doesn’t sell. In that scenario, FSFW wouldn’t offer vaping any solid benefits.

But if FSFW does play honestly, and fund research in areas of vaping that have been neglected, then the vape industry would inevitably benefit. For example, a study to show how e-liquids serve a vital purpose for adult vapers who need encouragement and an appealing alternative to give up smoking. However, complete focus on niche vaping interests with no funding for established nicotine researchers would draw an unhelpful link between PMI and vaping.

Unless FSFW funds appropriately, then tobacco control radicals will be able to dismiss their research and attach negative Big Tobacco connotations. Those who want to conduct genuine vaping research would stay clear for that reason, making FSFW’s findings low quality and insignificant.

Indeed, those advocating strong tobacco control measures have picked up on the FSFW’s move to associate with PMI, and are slamming it. Notorious Stanton Glantz of the University of California-San Francisco accused Derek Yach of moving to the “dark side” on his personal blog recently.

Another familiar face, Matthew Myers of the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids has piped up. In fairness, he accurately criticized that PMI’s funding of FSFW was miniscule compared to the profits that they continue to rake in. However, if Myers has a problem with that he should blame himself for making it easier for Philip Morris and Big Tobacco by negotiating the 2009 Tobacco Control Act. But it is another sign of how easily tarnished vaping is by PMI’s moneybags.

Even if the FSFW does work, they will struggle to form a good, trustworthy public image because of these tobacco control-led anti-vaping smears. PMI’s involvement could be so detrimental that the FSFW could be a boon for vaping, not beneficial. While researchers refusing to take grants for vaping studies seems a shame, if that research isn’t taken seriously, or worse, thought of as a covert Big Tobacco ploy, then perhaps it’s best it not happen at all.

We will soon see what happens. The leading researchers’ actions are key, and if a few accept FSFW funding and it isn’t considered controversial to do so, then tobacco control smears could be brushed aside. This would also free up others to request funding for unique vaping research – and there should be lots given FSFW’s financial position.

Unfortunately, at present, the most-publicized vaping studies are often framed with a control angle, as the FDA and the National Institutes of Health favor those who are generally supportive of federal government enforcing tighter regulations on low-risk nicotine products. This has resulted in shoddy and bogus research, with those conducting it having a good idea what answers they want before starting.

The vaping industry is in dire need of legitimate vaping research that will help educate people on the differences between vaping and smoking, and the huge benefits of the former. But can that be achieved by an alliance with Big Tobacco? They may have the power to woo financially, however we should be very wary of corporations that are essentially threatened by the rise of vaping.

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