GENEVA, SWITZERLAND - Controversy is swirling around the Foundation for a Smoke-Free World. This new non-profit organization has come under intense criticism from health agencies and anti-tobacco campaigners who accuse it of acting as a smoke-screen for Big Tobacco, a charge vigorously denied by the foundation’s president.
Derek Yach, who created and heads the foundation, was one of the architects of the World Health Organization’s Framework Convention on Tobacco Control, which came into force February 27, 2005.
He said he believes the provisions of the Convention were still valid and have been largely successful in preventing people from smoking and “in slowing the increase in kids through higher taxes, marketing and so on.”
But, he told VOA that the Convention focuses little attention on trying to get the billion current smokers in the world to quit the habit.
“To actually accelerate the decline in the billion smokers, we need to have better cessation, harm reduction and better product regulation,” he said. “And, I think those elements, I do not think have got the energy that we actually require.”
Yach said more than seven million people globally die prematurely each year from tobacco. He said his foundation’s mission was to wean these smokers away from their deadly addiction by using new harm reduction tools such as e-cigarettes and vaping.
“If these products have an impact,” he said, “we need to have independent research to show that they should be given more support.
“So, our work will not be to simply push them out, but to do high quality research to look at the negative and positive sides.”
Philip Morris is a producer of an e-cigarette-type product and is pushing hard into the vaping market.
The foundation is being subsidized by a $1 billion grant from tobacco giant Philip Morris, to be paid in $80 million yearly increments over the next 12 years. This eye-popping amount of money makes people like Vince Willmore, Vice-President of Communications at the Campaign for Tobacco Free Kids, cringe.
He told VOA that the alliance between the foundation and Philip Morris has no credibility.
“This foundation is really a smoke-screen designed to promote Philip Morris’ business interests and undermine real efforts to reduce the death and disease caused by tobacco use around the world.
“It is hard to take Philip Morris seriously that they want a smoke-free world when they are marketing cigarettes as aggressively as ever and they are fighting real solutions to reduce smoking.”
If Philip Morris really was serious about bringing smoking rates down, he said, it would embrace proven solutions, such as higher tobacco taxes, smoke-free policies, advertising bans and graphic health warnings on cigarette packages.
He said that “The actions of Philip Morris show that they are the main cause of the problem and not part of the solution”
Yach assured VOA that he had not “gone over to the dark side.”
He suggested that some people “could never understand that profitability and public health can actually work together.”
He said his relationship with Philip Morris was not based on trust. “I am not naïve enough to believe that Philip Morris is doing this because of the warm fuzzy feeling that they want to lower the death rates.
“No. What they want to do is have a product that is less risky and that makes them profits. That is the beginning and end of it.”
Yach recognizes that many of his former colleagues at the World Health Organization disagree with his approach. He said he shared their passion to rid the world of tobacco products entirely, but “with one billion lives hanging in the balance, we urgently must do more to cut the adult smoking rate,” he said. “Too much is at stake.”
WHO would not comment for this article. However, it did issue the following statement, which calls into question the tobacco harm reduction work of the foundation.
“The tobacco industry and its front groups have misled the public about risks associated with other tobacco products. This includes promoting so-called light and mild tobacco products as an alternative to quitting, while being fully aware that those products were not less harmful to health.”
WHO noted the many “conflicts of interest” involved in the foundation’s alliance with a tobacco company “funding a purported health foundation.”
It stated that “WHO will not partner with the foundation. Governments should not partner with the foundation and the public health community should follow this lead.”
Foundation Chief Derek Yach told VOA that stringent safeguards were in place and that he had set up a legal firewall to insulate the foundation from the influence of the tobacco company.
“These are legally binding agreements under U.S. laws,” he said. “If they are found to be inappropriately influencing, adversely influencing, we would lose our tax exempt status and under the law the foundation would be closed.”
Despite his many protestations, Yach acknowledged that he had a tough time dealing with his tobacco business partner.
“When I go into meetings with Philip Morris, I feel I have to hold my nose and that is something I suspect will continue for a long time,” he said.