On October 25 2021 the Board of the Philip Morris International (PMI)-funded Foundation for a Smoke-Free World (FSFW) announced that its President and Board Director Dr Derek Yach would no longer serve in this capacity, effective immediately. According to the FSFW website, Heidi Goldstein, General Counsel, and David Janazzo, Chief Finance Officer and Executive Vice-President of Operations and Finance, will serve as Interim Co-Presidents as the Board conducts a search for a new President. The latest media release announcing Dr Yach’s departure stated that “After careful consideration, the Board has determined that now is the right time for a new leader to guide the essential efforts of the Foundation, its team and its work with partners around the world.” During the twelve months prior to this development, the FSFW updated its website to reflect the resignations of 14 staff members, representing over one-third (38%) of its staff leaving, according to the Tobacco Control Research Group (TCRG) at the University of Bath.
The FSFW describes itself as “an independent, non-profit organization” that was established and is “operated free from the control or influence of any third party”, which “makes grants and supports medical, agricultural, and scientific research to end smoking and its health effects and to address the impact of reduced worldwide demand for tobacco”. The FSFW has been viewed with skepticism since its inception, with its claims of legitimacy and independence strongly disputed. The WHO and several hundred public health organisations globally have taken a strong stance in rejecting collaboration with the Foundation.
The FSFW media release quoted Dr Yach as saying “The Foundation’s ongoing work to end the world’s largest single preventable cause of death could not be more needed today. I leave the Foundation with deep satisfaction that we now have an emerging cadre of hundreds of researchers, advocates and industry scientists dedicating themselves to this goal. My future efforts aim to complement them.” What those efforts will entail remains to be seen. Despite Dr Yach’s claims of success at the FSFW, in June 2019 the TCRG exposed that FSFW spent significantly more in 2018 on public relations (US$7.5 million) than research (US$6.4 million), supporting the growing consensus that the FSFW is primarily a PMI public relations initiative. The TCRG also found that despite FSFW claiming to focus on low- and middle-income countries (LMICs), these countries received less than 10% of FSFW funding (approx. US$2.5 million) in 2020, whilst organisations based in the UK and US received nearly 75% (approx. US$30 million) of funding.
The FSFW was expected to receive around $US 80 million per year for 12 years in “annual gifts” from PMI; however the TCRG found that the FSFW’s 2020 tax return showed funding from PMI was cut from US$80 million to US$45 million. The FSFW has apparently been unable to source other funders for its work, perhaps because they do not wish to be associated with a tobacco company group.
It appears as though the FSFW is going up in smoke, given its difficulty in recruiting and maintaining staff and senior management, its challenges finding ways to spend its funds beyond public relations activities while a growing body of public health organisations and academic institutions refuse to work with a tobacco industry-funded body, and its funding having been cut by nearly 50% by its sole funder. PMI may be wearying of funding an organisation not achieving what it was secretly designed to achieve: division and distraction of the public health and tobacco control communities, opening more space for PMI to position itself as “the solution” to the tobacco pandemic, and undermining the implementation of the WHO FCTC globally.
John Baker is the Assistant News Editor for Tobacco Control and is a Project Officer in the Tobacco Control Unit at the Victorian Department of Health, Australia. The author declares no conflict of interest.