Industry-funded International Tax and Investment Center responds to criticism by attempting to muddy the waters

Karen A Evans-Reeves, Anna B Gilmore and Andy Rowell

Tobacco Control Research Group, University of Bath,

The tobacco industry is under attack. In just two weeks, in May 2016, its tactic of challenging any law that threatens its profits, took a big hit. The arbitration panel, that tobacco giant Philip Morris International (PMI) had hoped would overturn standardised packaging legislation in Australia, published its full ruling that the company’s self-serving claims were inadmissible. Just days later, all four major tobacco companies lost their challenges against both the European Union’s Tobacco Products Directive and standardised packaging legislation in the UK.

The UK, France and Ireland, which have already enacted standardised packaging legislation, will now go ahead with this brand removal. Further afield Canada, New Zealand, Hungary and Norway are due to follow suit and other countries which have expressed an interest will be buoyed by the way the industry’s legal and trade challenges to plain packs are being soundly rejected. The World Health Organization’s (WHO) slogan for World No Tobacco Day 2016 was “Get Ready for Plain Packaging” recognising that the removal of branded tobacco packaging is “going global.”

Each jurisdiction to consider standardised packaging legislation has received sustained attacks from tobacco companies, using both their own voices and those of third parties which they fund. By commissioning and publicising research reports and opinions from seemingly independent experts, tobacco companies have created not only the impression of a large network of opposition but of an illusory body of evidence, particularly in relation to the industry argument that standardised packaging will increase the illicit tobacco trade.

PMI private documents, leaked to Action on Smoking and Health (UK), revealed that “broad third-party media engagement” and “high profile opinion pieces” would be used to raise awareness of such arguments among “decision makers and the general public” as part of its attempt to prevent standardised packaging in the UK. These documents also revealed that PMI intended to use the International Tax and Investment Centre (ITIC) as one of its key “media messengers”. Since 2012, PMI has paid ITIC (in collaboration with global advisory firm, Oxford Economics) to produce annual reports on the illicit trade in Asia. These claimed that illicit trade is increasing in the region but have been accused of being methodologically flawed. When publicly available routine data was used in an attempt to replicate ITIC’s findings in Hong Kong, illicit levels were found to be under half of what ITIC had estimated.

Key to the industry’s use of third parties is its attempt to shift the paradigm by presenting third parties as ‘independent experts’ and their research as ‘trustworthy and rigorous’ while simultaneously positioning public health academics as ‘advocates’ and ‘zealots’ and their research as ‘advocacy’. This presentation of corporate pawns as informed moderates producing quality work and public health researchers as misguided fundamentalists producing poor quality work is a public relations tactic employed for decades by corporations in relation to environmental and health issues.

Over the last few weeks this tactic has been adopted by the tobacco industry third party, ITIC, in a series of letters sent to Non-Governmental Organisations (South East Asia Tobacco Control Alliance (SEATCA), ASH (UK), EU SmokeFree Partnership), the University of Bath in the UK, and the Editors of Tobacco Control, all of whom had criticised ITIC’s activities, some in letters, reports and webpages. ITIC’s letters made three inter-related claims, each of which we explore in the paragraphs below.

First, that public health research should be seen as advocacy while, by contrast, ITIC’s research (none of which appears to be peer-reviewed) should be seen as high quality. For example, in his letter to the University of Bath the President of ITIC, Daniel Witt, claimed:

We have become increasingly concerned about how the integrity of reputable institutions and individuals is maligned by overzealous advocacy ….. and ….by what passes for academic research when it is clearly constructed to fulfil an advocacy agenda”.

This denigration of public health research has been strongly criticised by independent experts. In her 2006 verdict in an extortion case against the tobacco industry in the United States Judge Gladys Kessler noted:

Much of the Defendants’ [i.e. the tobacco industry’s] criticisms of Government witnesses focused on the fact that these witnesses had been long-time, devoted members of “the public health community.” To suggest that they were presenting inaccurate, untruthful, or unreliable testimony because they had spent their professional lives trying to improve the public health of this country is patently absurd”.

The recent high court ruling on the challenges made by British American Tobacco, PMI, Japan Tobacco International and Imperial Tobacco to UK standardised packaging legislation made a similar point, citing Sir Cyril Chantler’s 2015 review of the evidence:

Chantler … rejected the criticism made by the tobacco companies that those that advised the Government were biased against the industry. Conversely, he articulated scepticism about the methodological efficacy of research results generated by the tobacco companies. He also criticised the tobacco companies for adopting unrealistic criticisms of the output of existing researchers…

This ruling drew upon two peer-reviewed papers, one confirming the poor quality of industry evidence in comparison to public health evidence on standardised packaging and the other paper showing how BAT and JTI  went about distorting and misrepresenting public health evidence.

ITIC’s second claim is that it is not a lobby group. Yet based on widely accepted definitions of lobbying, ITIC’s own descriptions of its activities, and the global health communities’ observations of its behaviour, ITIC clearly acts as a lobbying organisation. Indeed, it has persistently boasted of its lobbying success. in 1995, ITIC produced a document which outlined how “ITIC has developed trusted, advisory relationships with key, senior-level policy makers…..[which]…provide channels for private sector expertise to reach the Government before, during and after the official policy-making process. This combination…… provides ITIC and its sponsors a ‘seat at the policy-making table’”. And in 2004, Daniel Witt, ITIC’s President noted: “ITIC is a public policy organization actively working to change public policy in a pro-investment direction.” Although ITIC claims to be an “independent, non-profit research and educational organization” it receives tobacco company funding and has industry representatives on its Board of Directors.  Outputs such as the Asia-11 and Asia-14 illicit trade indicator studies, commissioned by PMI and published by ITIC along with global advisory firm Oxford Economics, have been critiqued by Dr Hana Ross (on behalf of SEATCA) for opaque methodology and “unverifiable” results that were “inconsistent with results from other studies” in the region (for more on this issue, read here). In 2014, ITIC attempted to destabilise the proposed guidelines on tobacco tax and price policy by convening a meeting with Parties and Observers to the Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (FCTC) immediately prior to the sixth Conference of the Parties (COP6). The Convention’s Secretariat blasted ITIC for this move.

Finally, in each letter, ITIC’s President, Daniel Witt argues that public health organisations ought to engage with ITIC given its tax expertise. This position displays a fundamental misunderstanding of the FCTC’s Article 5.3 which aims to protect policy making from the vested interests of the tobacco industry. It also displays a fundamental lack of understanding of public attitudes to ITIC. For example, the World Bank withdrew from an ITIC event in India, following a letter from the Institute of Public Health in the country,  similarly, following a letter from ASH (UK), the UK Department for International Development (DfiD) asked ITIC to remove its name, from its list of sponsors on ITIC’s website as DfiD has never been a sponsor, and the FCTC Secretariat has urged all governments not to engage with ITIC.

SEATCA and the University of Bath have respectively published and sent to ITIC detailed rebuttals of ITIC’s letters to them. These rebuttals and the aforementioned high court rulings are unlikely to deter ITIC from trying to influence tobacco control policies such as standardised packaging across the globe and undermining Article 5.3 of the FCTC. But the more people who reject engagement with ITIC, the harder it will be for ITIC to boast that it can get its tobacco industry clients a “seat at the policy making table”.