Who should we trust on science diplomacy and COVID-19 recovery? Not Big Tobacco

Alice Fabbri, Louis Laurence, Mateusz Zatoński, Anna B Gilmore

On April 20th the magazine Foreign Policy will hold a Virtual Dialogue on “Science Diplomacy”. The event will focus on “elevating the role of science in addressing global challenges” including recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic. One of the event’s aims is to “energize international cooperation on science and technology innovation to tackle misinformation”.

On the surface, this appears a relevant and timely initiative. Yet most will be appalled that the event is organised in partnership with Philip Morris International (PMI). The irony of PMI co-organising and speaking at an event on science diplomacy and tackling misinformation cannot be missed. The tobacco industry’s long history of manipulating science is well evidenced. For decades tobacco companies misused and manipulated science to create doubt around the health risks of their deadly products and the effectiveness of smoking policies. They funded and disseminated research supporting their position while simultaneously suppressing and attacking research they deemed unfavourable. In the 1990s, as part of widespread efforts to prevent policies restricting smoking, Philip Morris appropriated the “sound science” concept to attack studies showing the harm of passive smoking and tried to change scientific standards of proof to make it impossible to demonstrate the harms of second-hand smoke. In her landmark 2006 verdict that US tobacco companies had violated racketeering laws and fraudulently covered up the health risks of smoking, Judge Gladys Kessler stated they had “engaged in and executed – and continue to engage in and execute – a massive 50-year scheme to defraud the public”. In line with Kessler’s conclusion that such efforts were ongoing, former PMI scientists have recently raised concerns about the company’s science and it appears PMI may still be misrepresenting evidence and regulatory decisions around its latest products.

It is also worth mentioning that the “Science Diplomacy” event is being co-sponsored by the “Industry Transformation Coalition”, an organisation whose list of members includes PMI, Pepsico, and the US Oil & Gas Association (among others). Despite the claim its primary mission is “well-being”, the coalition appears to be operating as another conduit for PMI’s messaging. In 2020 it  published a PMI-authored ‘White Paper’ on “Trust in a COVID World”. The report discusses public trust (including trust in science and business) and presents the result of a PMI-sponsored international survey that showed “clear support for companies engaging more with both governments and the public on public policy and social issues”. The tobacco industry co-opting discussions around public trust in science and COVID-19 recovery is deeply concerning. Few industries have done more to erode trust in science and damage economies.

In light of these considerations, we call on scientists, public health professionals, and governmental representatives to avoid associating their names with the upcoming “Science Diplomacy” event and similar types of initiatives. A speaker from the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) was listed on the website of the event on 9th April and by the 13th had been removed. The apparent and commendable withdrawal of the OECD speaker is consistent with the duties of OECD member states, who as Parties to the WHO Framework Convention on Tobacco Control are bound by its Article 5.3. Yet, broader structural problems remain. With the “Science Diplomacy” event, Foreign Policy joins the Economist and other media groups willing to collaborate with PMI on publications and events. By working with media groups, tobacco companies could gain access to public platforms and whitewashing opportunities.

In conclusion, the public health community must be vigilant to stop harmful industries influencing the debate around science and pandemic recovery and refuse to engage in events that could advance the tobacco industry’s interests.  Pandemic recovery must be an opportunity for society to build a healthier future without harmful industries setting and exploiting the agenda.

Alice Fabbri is a Research Fellow at the Tobacco Control Research Group, University of Bath and a member of SPECTRUM, a UK Prevention Research Partnership Consortium. Louis Laurence is an Investigative Researcher at Tobacco Tactics, part of the Tobacco Control Research Group, University of Bath. Mateusz Zatoński is a Research Fellow at the Tobacco Control Research Group, University of Bath. Anna B Gilmore is Professor of Public Health, Director of the Tobacco Control Research Group at the University of Bath. The authors have not conflicts of interest to declare.

Funding statement: AF and AG are members of SPECTRUM, a UK Prevention Research Partnership Consortium (MR/S037519/1). UKPRP is an initiative funded by the UK Research and Innovation Councils, the Department of Health and Social Care (England) and the UK devolved administrations, and leading health research charities. LL, MZ and AG are part of the global tobacco industry watchdog STOP (Stopping Tobacco Organizations and Products), which is funded by Bloomberg Philanthropies.

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