Philip Morris Smoke Free Foundation: questions about independence and transparency, while top universities distance themselves

Seventeen universities in Canada and the USA have issued a joint statement that they will not accept funding from, or pursue work with, the Philip Morris International (PMI)-funded ‘Foundation for a Smoke Free World’. The statement echoes concerns previously raised by the World Health Organization and other public health groups and leaders, stating: “If Philip Morris really wished to establish a ‘smoke free world’ they would stop legal challenges to local and national tobacco control effort and cease advertising and manufacturing cigarettes”. Other universities have previously rejected funding from the Foundation.

Meanwhile, criticisms of the Foundation’s claimed independence and transparency continue. Foundation president Derek Yach has repeatedly claimed that the Foundation is truly independent from PMI, drawing heavily on a 2009 paper published in Tobacco Control entitled Criteria for evaluating tobacco control research funding programs and their application to models that include financial support from the tobacco industryYach cited the paper in an article published by the Lancet in October 2017, and asserted that the PMI Smoke Free Foundation meets the eight criteria outlined.

However, the authors of the paper have unambiguously countered his representation of their recommendations. After submitting a response to Yach’s article to the Lancet and following up multiple times over a period of two months, the paper’s authors Joanna Cohen and Thomas Eissenberg retracted their Lancet correspondence and published it through their own channels (link here). Their conclusion: “Due to lack of independence, the potential for conflicts of interest, and clear public relations gains, the foundation does not represent a tobacco industry-supported funding model that should be acceptable to the research community”.

It was not the only example in the Lancet paper where Yach’s interpretation was at odds with the author of a paper he cited. A correction was published on 7 December, after Jonathon Liberman of the McCabe Centre for Law and Cancer, author of Four COPs and counting: achievements, underachievements and looming challenges in the early life of the WHO FCTC Conference of the Parties pointed out that his paper does not support Yach’s assertion that ‘most development agencies, international research bodies, and regional development banks are stepping back from commitments made during the FCTC negotiations’. Jonathan Liberman has since confirmed that his paper “provided no support for Yach’s assertion,” nor is the assertion something he has ever thought.

On 30 January, a blog authored by Liberman and published on the FCTC Secretariat Knowledge Hub, examines the Foundation’s recently-announced Pledge Agreement. It notes that the Foundation’s focus on ‘ending smoking’ is to be pursued only in the context of alternative products and harm reduction, highlighting that “Patently, Philip Morris has a significant commercial interest in alternative products / harm reduction, whereas prevention of uptake and cessation of use, without replacement by other products, are not in its interests.”

It concludes that: “it would not be unreasonable to form a picture which is different from the one Yach sees, one in which Yach’s ‘independent foundation’ is more akin to a program of Philip Morris, with Yach and the Foundation’s Directors, whoever these come to be, having a degree of day-to-day autonomy in their operations (just how much autonomy is unknowable), but with the fundamental settings put in place by, and enforced, by Philip Morris’s USD960 million.”