On May 20-21, heads of state and dignitaries from Southeast and South Asia gathered virtually to discuss the post-COVID “Future of Asia” at Nikkei’s flagship annual event. The conference was tobacco industry-free, thanks to a concerted effort by health and tobacco control advocates.
Philip Morris Japan (PMJ) had been named as a main sponsor, with Jacek Olzack, the new CEO of Philip Morris International (PMI), scheduled to speak on “Sustainable Growth and Transformation in Asia” alongside officials from Asian Development Bank and Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD).
Tobacco industry watchdog STOP alerted advocates to PMJ and PMI’s involvement, spurring many, including regional agencies and local advocates, to reach out to confirmed speakers, asking them to withdraw from the event. STOP organized an open letter to Nikkei, emphasizing the potential violation of TAPS bans in many Asian countries and that Presidents, Prime Ministers and other government ministers were being led into potential violations of their country’s commitments to the WHO FCTC.
This outreach bore fruit: dignitaries including a World Bank representative, New Zealand’s Minister for Trade and Export Growth and Pakistan’s Prime Minister informed Nikkei that they were withdrawing from the event.
On May 17, a brief statement on the conference website noted that Olczak’s appearance was cancelled. PMJ’s logo was quietly removed from the list of sponsors. Speakers intending to withdraw were reassured that Nikkei had ended PMI’s participation and returned PMJ’s sponsorship funding.
A week later, the president of Philip Morris France (PMF) was withdrawn as a speaker at the 10th Edition of the Inclusion and CSR Dialogues, an event organized by French authorities under the patronage of President Emmanuel Macron, after strong advocacy outreach led by Comité National Contre le Tabagisme with the support of Smoke Free Partnership, Alliance contre le tabac and STOP. Government ministers informed the organizers that they would not attend if PMF participated.
A month earlier, in the U.S., an event on post-COVID Science Diplomacy, organized by Foreign Policy, had to be cancelled due to a lack of speakers. Many science diplomacy experts had refused to participate in the event, citing PMI’s sponsorship and executive participation. Speakers who had confirmed, including an Austrian diplomat and a representative from OECD, pulled out after advocate outreach alerted them to PMI’s involvement in the event.
What do these three events tell us?
First, PMI is paying to position itself alongside and gain access to policymakers and other influential stakeholders. In seeking these opportunities, the company is actively working to subvert the WHO FCTC. And with examples from Asia, Europe and the U.S., this tactic is being used globally.
Second, hearteningly, many speakers from a wide range of professions and countries are unwilling to share a platform with and lend their credibility to a tobacco company.
Third, event organizers need to look beyond tobacco industry money and speaker pitches to consider the potential implications of industry sponsorship and participation, including the withdrawal of credible expert speakers of far greater interest to their audiences. Policymakers need to ensure that they don’t commit to industry-linked speaking engagements. And government event organizers need to be appraised of their country’s commitments to the WHO FCTC.
Finally, there is real power and the potential to make a difference when the global tobacco control community comes together to share knowledge and take collaborative action.
Mary Assunta is Head of Global Research and Advocacy at the Global Tobacco Center for Good Governance in Tobacco Control (GGTC), and a Partner in STOP. GGTC serves as the WHO FCTC Secretariat’s Knowledge Hub on Article 5.3 for the protection against tobacco industry interference globally. She has no interests to declare.