December 12, 2023

Once a front group, always a front group

Tobacco smoke

The Foundation for a Smoke-Free World (FSFW) recently announced that it is severing ties with Philip Morris International (PMI), the Big Tobacco giant that created the front group and has been its exclusive funder. PMI’s parting gift? $122 million – enough to cover FSFW’s budget for an additional three and a half years.

The foundation’s new CEO, Clifford Douglas, claims that now, “Any skepticism around our independence can be laid to rest.” But FSFW is still and always will be PMI’s baby. Cutting the umbilical cord doesn’t change its DNA.

We all know that smoking is deadly. People around the world have been fighting to reduce tobacco use and save lives. Cities and countries have enacted regulations protecting over 70% of the world’s population with at least one control measure – five times more than in 2007. Perhaps most significant of all has been the creation of the WHO Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (FCTC), a binding treaty to safeguard public health policy from industry interference and hold Big Tobacco accountable for its harms.

The tobacco industry recognizes the threat such popular, global efforts pose to its immense profits. That’s why tobacco corporations do everything possible to skirt regulations, kill tobacco control legislation, avoid liability, and market to more vulnerable populations like youth and communities of color, especially in low-income countries.

PMI’s creation of FSFW is case in point. According to scholars at the University of Bath, “On multiple occasions, both the Foundation and its funder PMI have appeared to synchronize their global and in-country public relations and lobbying activities.” FSFW has funded researchers with tobacco industry links and junk science that downplays the harms of emerging tobacco products, like vapes and heating tobacco. And while Big Tobacco is barred from attending tobacco treaty talks, FSFW grantees often represent PMI’s interests at the FCTC. (Will the Foundation take a different approach now that its funder has claimed independence? We’ll find out at COP10 in February).

Unsurprisingly, health advocates and organizations have expressed concerns about FSFW since its inception. The FSFW and its partnerships have been shunned by public health organizations including the World Conference on Tobacco or Health (WCTOH), the WHO FCTC, the WHO itself, and most recently at the WHO Executive Board meeting. Prominent academic institutions like Harvard University and Johns Hopkins University have also refused to accept funding or pursue work with the front group, and FSFW has had trouble publishing its science in peer-reviewed journals. Civil society groups including Corporate Accountability have called on PMI to shut down the foundation, stop interfering with tobacco control policy, and pay for the harms it has caused.

Now, FSFW is claiming independence and embarking on a rebrand in order to sidestep public opposition and calls for accountability. The move is yet another tactic in Big Tobacco’s playbook to keep profiting from its dangerous products no matter what damage it causes – a playbook followed by all manner of abusive corporations, from Nestlé to Chevron.

Some may think FSFW is turning over a new leaf. But PMI created, funded, and set the agenda for FSFW from the very start, and its money will continue to make the group’s work possible for years to come. FSFW’s purpose is to make it easier for Big Tobacco to peddle its dangerous products, and no amount of rebranding or health-washing can change that.

The global health community cannot allow FSFW – or any industry front group – to slap on a new logo and go about business as usual. Instead, we must hold it accountable for its abuses and strengthen safeguards against its interference. It’s time for the FSFW to disband, not rebrand!

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