Michael Bloomberg launches tobacco industry watchdog
March 7, 2018
A new global watchdog agency has been launched to monitor the tobacco industry with $20m of philanthropic funding amid fears of dirty tactics by cigarette companies hit by declining smoking rates in the west.
The funding for the agency, named Stop (Stopping Tobacco Organisations and Products), comes from Bloomberg Philanthropies, whose founder, Michael Bloomberg, a former mayor of New York, has committed almost $1bn to the global fight against tobacco.
The agency will “aggressively monitor deceptive tobacco industry tactics and practices to undermine public health,” said Bloomberg Philanthropies. Global information and data on the behaviour of the tobacco companies, especially in low- and middle-income countries where they are seeking to grow their markets, will be collated and held on a public website.
The move follows recent uproar among anti-tobacco and public health campaigners over the investment of $80m by the world’s biggest cigarette-maker, Philip Morris International (PMI), in a new body called the Foundation for a Smoke-Free World.
PMI, maker of Marlboro cigarettes, has said its future is in smokeless products such as new “heat not burn” tobacco-filled cigarettes that may be less harmful – although there is insufficient evidence to be sure – as well as e-cigarettes. The foundation, which PMI says is independent and is headed by a former anti-tobacco crusader from the World Health Organization, is offering funds for research projects.
The tobacco control movement has roundly denounced the foundation and accused PMI of duplicity. Michael Bloomberg, now WHO global ambassador for noncommunicable diseases, said it was “an effort by Philip Morris to confuse the public and to misinform them deliberately”.
Bloomberg Philanthropies pointed out that the industry has form. “Tobacco industry-funded research has repeatedly been a smokescreen for behaviour that has led to worse outcomes for smokers. For example, supposedly safer low-tar and filtered cigarettes led to greater numbers of smokers, deeper inhalation patterns, and higher daily consumption – all worsening public health worldwide,” it said in a statement.
At a briefing, Michael Bloomberg accused the foundation of promoting “fake science as well as fake news”, adding: “Unfortunately, I think you’ve seen this technique being used in our government to obfuscate and to confuse people.”
Enormous progress had been made in helping people stop smoking and deterring them from starting, saving 35 million lives in the last decade, he said: “I understand the tobacco companies want to protect their business, but to deliberately go out and to misinform people where lives are at stake is just something that I think we should not permit. And so my foundation has committed $20m as a start to explain to people what’s going on.”
The Stop agency was launched in Cape Town at the 17th World Conference on Tobacco or Health, an event that is held every three years and brings together experts and campaigners from all over the world. Nobody from the Foundation for a Smoke-Free World was invited, which the organisers say is in line with the WHO’s framework convention on tobacco control. That convention, signed by more than 160 countries but not yet ratified by all of them, stipulates that no negotiations must take place with the tobacco industry.
But the arrival on the scene of e-cigarettes in recent years has complicated the issues. Leading brands are made by tobacco companies. Some public health experts say they are the best hope for many long-term smokers of quitting a habit that will otherwise kill them. A report from Public Health England recently called for them to be sold in hospital shops and urged manufacturers to seek a licence for them so they can be prescribed by doctors.
Others warn that there is not enough evidence of their long-term effects. Dr Kelly Henning, director of public health programs with Bloomberg Philanthropies, said 60% of US vapers are “dual-users”, so have not given up cigarettes. There are concerns that young people may get addicted to nicotine and go on to develop a smoking habit.
“The US Centers for Disease Control, the surgeon general and the Food and Drug Administration expert group very strongly said e-cigarettes are not for children,” Henning said. “Governments have to have very strong regulatory frameworks to stop these products getting into the hands of children.”
The Guardian’s series Tobacco: a deadly business is funded by by support provided, in part, by Vital Strategies with funding by Bloomberg Philanthropies. Content is editorially independent.