Goodbye, PMI. Philip Morris removed from Canadian COVID-19 vaccine collaboration

Les Hagen and Daniel Dorado

Tobacco giant Philip Morris (PMI) was recently removed from Canada’s Medicago Inc vaccine collaboration following a determined two-year global advocacy campaign led by ASH Canada and Corporate Accountability (CAI). This development represents an enormous win for global public health, ensuring that the control of one pandemic doesn’t compromise that of another.

The news of the expulsion was conspicuously leaked out through a Quebec French-language newspaper on Christmas Eve, likely in an effort to suppress news coverage of the decision. Anticipating this possibility, the lead advocacy organisations (ASH and CAI) quickly issued a multi-language news release to publicise the decision globally through various news services and social media platforms.

The PMI removal follows the World Health Organization’s (WHO) March 2022 decision to refuse Medicago’s application for global distribution of the vaccine through the COVAX distribution system. The involvement of PMI was cited as the primary reason for the decision. The Canadian government-backed collaboration represented a blatant contravention of Article 5.3 of the Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (FCTC), which requires Governments to protect public policies from the vested interests of the tobacco industry. Subsequently, at the World Health Assembly in May 2022, WHO member states were formally advised to refuse accepting or distributing the “Philip Morris vaccine.”

The removal of PMI from the Medicago vaccine consortium is a victory for public health and for the WHO FCTC in particular. The government of Canada invested US$130 million in the vaccine collaboration despite knowing that PMI was a major investor and that this relationship could contravene Article 5.3 of the treaty. Article 5.3 is a cornerstone of the FCTC and tobacco industry interference is regarded as the single largest barrier to the effective implementation of the treaty.

Ironically, the Canadian government championed a decision at the 8th Conference of the Parties of the FCTC in 2018 urging all participating countries to comply with Article 5.3 and its guidelines. Unfortunately, the Canadian government did not follow its own directive and the absence of government-wide guidelines enabled the PMI collaboration.

Canada is viewed as a world leader in tobacco control. If the Canadian government is vulnerable to tobacco industry engagement and collaboration, then so are many governments. All FCTC treaty participants need to fully implement Article 5.3 and its guidelines and the Canadian government needs to follow its own directive by closing the door on any future collaborations with tobacco corporations.

In addition, governments need to implement other protective articles of the convention such as Article 19, which gives governments the power to sue Big Tobacco for its negligence, deception and public health damages. This action needs to be taken rapidly to hold the industry accountable and deter further misconduct.

The civil society advocacy campaign to expel PMI involved publicity efforts, a social media campaign, numerous presentations and meetings with key stakeholders, targeted letter-writing, a pivotal appeal to the members of the World Health Assembly and various governments and regulatory agencies such as the Food and Drug Administration (FDA).

Over 100 members of the Framework Convention Alliance (now the Global Alliance for Tobacco Control or GATC) participated in the advocacy campaign, including several who publicly urged their national governments to refuse accepting the ‘Philip Morris vaccine’. We are very grateful for the assistance, guidance and support of over 100 organisational members of the GATC who participated in the advocacy campaign, especially the Global Center for Good Governance in Tobacco Control (GGTC) and STOP (Stopping Tobacco Organizations and Products).

Organisations were deeply concerned about PMI exploiting the COVID-19 pandemic for commercial gain while perpetuating the greatest industry-driven epidemic of our time. Tobacco use is responsible for over eight million deaths globally each year and PMI products are a significant contributor to the enormous human toll of disease, suffering, and death.

This concern was apparently lost on the Canadian government which argued to the end that the PMI collaboration did not represent a treaty violation. However the government’s messaging conflicted sharply with the WHO’s decision to refuse global distribution of the vaccine. The WHO’s widely publicised decision to refuse global distribution of the vaccine was pivotal and made it untenable for the vaccine to gain approval until after PMI was removed.

We applaud the WHO, the FCTC Secretariat, the Tobacco-Free Initiative, and the Pan American Health Organization for vigorously defending and upholding the treaty and the WHO’s organisational policy to reject tobacco industry partnerships. This policy extends to organisations that are in official relations with the WHO including Gavi, the vaccine alliance which oversees the COVAX vaccine distribution system.

It cannot be overstated: the expulsion of PMI from Canada’s vaccine collaboration is a major victory for the global public health, the WHO FCTC, and the tobacco control community. We should all celebrate this momentous achievement. Goodbye, PMI.

Les Hagen is the Executive Director of ASH (Action on Smoking and Health) Canada. Daniel Dorado is the Tobacco Campaign Director for Corporate Accountability USA.

 

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