Tim McAfee & John Baker
The Foundation for a Smoke Free World (FSFW), wholly funded by Philip Morris International (PMI), is attempting to recruit physicians from 12 countries to serve on its “Doctors and Health Professionals Global Poll 2021 National Advisory Board” (NAB). The NAB is characterized as an 8-month “study” beginning in June 2021 and finishing in January 2022, delivered by Sermo. Sermo, according to the invitation received by several US physicians, engages with 1.3 million health care practitioners to provide them with a social platform to encourage peer-to-peer collaboration and discussion on important practice and patient issues. According to Sermo’s website, it sells access to their panel of physicians in order to run surveys informing institutional clients, which include pharmaceutical and medical device companies: “We’re a world leader in turning physician experience, expertise, and observations into actionable insights for the global healthcare community…More unique ways to understand your customers: We’re so much more than a panel. Tap into our global social platform to understand what physicians are really saying.”
The NAB invitation outlines the FSFW’s goals, including “validating and disseminating…findings regarding medical professional education on smoking prevention, developing an in-depth understanding of current levels of knowledge and professional practices related to cessation and tobacco harm reduction around the world, and…translating findings into actionable insights to accelerate an end to smoking globally.”
Unmentioned in the invitation is that the Foundation’s focus is on promoting an industry version of “harm reduction” that emphasizes continued development and access to alternative commercial tobacco products such as inhaled heated products with uncertain risks. It has pushed for altering the WHO Framework Convention on Tobacco Control, potentially for the purpose of regaining tobacco companies a seat at the policymaking table in circumvention of Article 5.3.
The NAB members would “..act as a consultation body for the Global Poll 2021 consortium by providing expertise, inputs, and feedback, liaise with the Global Advisory Board (GABs) to support alignment of project outcomes with the needs of stakeholders locally and on the ground, and support the rollout and upscale of the study and its outputs by informing their networks and contacts across the medical ecosystem to benefit from the learnings once available.”
The email invitation stated that participants would be invited to 3-4 interviews during the course of the study and would be compensated with $350 USD for each interview. Sermo seeks permission to use the names of physicians involved in publications. However, the body of the email does not mention the financial relationship between FSFW and PMI, noting “The Foundation for a Smoke-Free World, Inc…is an independent, nonprofit, tax-exempt, private foundation committed to reducing deaths and diseases caused by smoking. [The] Foundation’s mission is to end smoking in this generation. To achieve this goal on a truly global scale, [The] Foundation strives to identify and address the unique needs of the developing world as they relate to tobacco cessation and harm reduction.” There is no clue informing invitees that the FSFW is wholly supported by Philip Morris International until the official screening document attachment is opened, where it is briefly acknowledged and then discounted.
Physicians approached by this Sermo recruitment effort will likely not be aware that the FSFW is entirely funded by a tobacco company, and certainly will have no idea that their participation will be used in support of a particular tobacco industry “harm reduction” strategy.
Sermo should immediately terminate their contract with FSFW, since the work is funded by a global tobacco company. Their association with this endeavour is inconsistent with the health-related aims of their other clients, which include government agencies that are precluded from entering into contracts with companies that do business with tobacco companies. They should immediately communicate with all invitees to clearly inform them at the beginning of correspondence (not buried in attachments) that the FSFW is wholly funded by a tobacco company, and provide this information prominently on their website and blog. Physicians who are approached in other countries should be aware that the FSFW is working to advance tobacco company interests. Healthcare and public health organizations should strongly encourage their members not to take part in this pseudo advisory board, and researchers should be prepared to carefully examine the methodology and rebut the claims that will inevitably be made based on an industry-sponsored survey.
Tim McAfee, MD, MPH; University of Washington School of Public Health, Department of Health Systems and Population Health, Seattle Washington, USA. John Baker is a PhD candidate at La Trobe University, Victoria, Australia and is the Assistant News Editor for the Tobacco Control Journal. The authors declare no conflict of interest.