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Controversy over Smoke-Free world campaign

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With a focus on Africa, and Nigeria in particular, Phillip Morris International (PMI) is stopping at nothing to convince institutions and groups that it is committed to ensuring a smoke-free world at all cost.

PMI had on September 13, 2017 announced that it was giving out a whopping $1 billion (or $80 million annually) over a 12-year period beginning from 2018 for its Foundation for Smoke-Free World (FSFW).

Investigations revealed that the foundation is solely funded by the tobacco giant, which consulted widely with tertiary institutions across Nigeria to sell its agenda of a smoke-free world. Most of the institutions, The Guardian learnt, turned down the offer to fund the Foundation through their institutions.

It is also instructive to note that no fewer than 17 public health schools and institutions in the United States of America (U.S.A.) and Canada, including Harvard and John Hopkins had earlier in 2018 refused any form of research grants from the FSFW, citing the fact that it was affiliated to an industry that undermines public health by producing and selling deadly tobacco products to millions around the world.

However, PMI succeeded in convincing the authorities of the University of Nigeria (UNN) Nsukka, Enugu State, to accept an $80 million a year funding through the FSFW, which will work closely with the International Centre for Biodiversity (ICB), a category II centre under the auspices of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) domiciled at UNN.

As a cardinal objective of the smoke-free-world initiative, PMI proposes to support alternative livelihoods for Africa’s small holder tobacco farmers, for which highly paid researchers have been engaged to gather information and advise the tobacco giant on the best form of support for the farmers. But observers argued that knowing the tobacco industry’s antics such support may never come.

A visit to UNN further revealed that construction works have reached advanced stages and skeletal activities have begun at the ICB’s massive building and it is being perfected under the Tertiary Education Trust Fund (TETFund) and the Faculty of Biological Sciences.

A personal assistant in the office of the Director General of ICB who prefers anonymity, said the UNN authorities are not unaware of Article 20 (1a) of the World Health Organisation (WHO)’s Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (TCTC), which encourages such collaborations.

It states: “Parties can initiate and cooperate in, directly or through competent international and regional intergovernmental organisations and other bodies, to conduct research and scientific assessments, and in so doing promote and encourage research that address the determinants and consequences of tobacco consumption and exposure to tobacco smoke, as well as research for identification of alternative crops…”

However, another WHO publication on Tobacco Product Regulation punctured that argument. It explained that: “Toxicity and the harm caused by tobacco products differ both within and between product classes. It is generally understood that because of the high concentrations of very toxic and carcinogenic chemicals delivered to the lungs, combusted traditional products (i.e., cigarettes, cigars, bidis, kreteks, waterpipes, etc.) pose the most harm to users.

“The diversity of smokeless tobacco products poses further regulatory and testing challenges. But the toxicity of various products could vary depending on specific manufacturing practices and user bahaviour. A product that is less toxic but used often may be a bigger concern than one that is more toxic but only rarely used.”

Following from the above, PMI has made a commitment to the world, its employees and shareholders to create a smoke-free future. Success in the cigarette business, and more than a decade of scientific research and technology development, gave PMI the resources to pursue this ambitious vision and to make its array of innovative, science-based smoke-free products the icons of the future.

Commenting on a new product recently in partnership with E2Open, Senior Vice President of PMI Operations, Massimo Andolina, said: “We’re excited to extend our partnership with E2open, bringing innovation and best-in-class digital services to the core of our supply chain.

“This strategic partnership will play a pivotal role in further transforming our supply chain to support the timely and efficient delivery of smoke-free products to adult consumers globally.”

As things stand, PMI has, therefore, succeeded in building a base of partners and collaborators at UNN, from where it will spread its tentacles to other institutions, groups and even individuals in Nigeria and Africa to promote its smoke-free world agenda.

Else, how does it sound that a multinational tobacco giant, which continues to produce cigarettes and other innovative tobacco products targeted at youths, is campaigning for a smoke-free world? Does it not sound ironical, ambivalent and curious that a company that produces tobacco products is also making efforts to see that its products do not sell? Did the UNN authorities consider the offer thoroughly before accepting that the ICB be domiciled there? Are they not aware of the health hazards tobacco use has caused millions in Nigeria and elsewhere? These and other questions have been agitating the minds of tobacco control advocates and other observers of the trend.

Specifically, the Environmental Rights Action, Friends of the Earth Nigeria (ERA/FoEN) had in a letter to the Vice Chancellor of UNN, Professor Benjamin Ozumba titled: Distance International Centre For Biotechnology From Phillip Morris International (PMI) Foundation For A Smoke-Free World and dated May 15, 2018, advised the university authorities to shun any kind of partnership with PMI.

As at today, the university authority neither replied that letter (copies of which were sent the President, Vice President, Minister of Education, Minister of Health, Executive Secretary, National Universities Commission (NUC) and Secretary General, Committee of Vice Chancellors of Nigerian Universities), nor sent feedback to ERA/FoEN about its rejection of or otherwise of PMI’s partnership.

ERA/FoEN and the African Tobacco Control Alliance (ATCA) have at different forums cautioned African institutions against accepting funding from or dealings with PMI or British America Tobacco (BAT) as both multinationals have been more committed to making profits at the expense of the health and safety of smokers and other tobacco users.

Of major concern to the environmentalists is that as PMI perfects plans of its smoke-free world project, it continues to aggressively market its cigarette brands around the world, often in ways aimed at children and teenagers and much of it targeting low-and middle-income countries.

Its letter to UNN, signed by Chairman of the Board, Nnimmo Bassey reads in part: “PMI’s alleged business transformation and the Foundation have no roles in helping countries achieve the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) to ensure healthy lives and promote well-being for all ages.

“This is not the first time a tobacco company has claimed to help find a solution to reduce tobacco-caused deaths and diseases. For over 60 years, the tobacco industry, including Phillip Morris, has funded alleged ‘independent research’ and manipulated such research findings to advance cigarette sales. The real purpose of these efforts was to support research favourable to the tobacco industry, create scientific controversy, and discredit scientific research viewed as threatening to the industry.

“The world’s leading credible tobacco control and public health experts have already publicly denounced PMI’s new Foundation. These groups include the WHO, International Union Against Tuberculosis and Lung Disease, Campaign for Tobacco Free Kids, International Framework for Smoke-Free Canada, and others.”

ERA/FoEN had disclosed that representatives of the Foundation have begun contacting civil society organisations, conference committees and other entities around the world to initiate dialogue, influence these organisations’ agandas and inform them about potential funding opportunities.

“We expect the Foundation to expand its global outreach to include research groups, academic institutions, funders, professional associations, research publications, government agencies, and others. We believe that the ICB and UNN risk undermining their reputation and credibility by associating with the Foundation,” it warned.

The group further requested that UNN rejects any kind of funding from the PMI Foundation, make its rejection known through a public statement and media statement stating its refusal to work with the Foundation, as well as adopt a clear policy for groups like the PMI Foundation.

It also asked the UNN authorities to communicate its stance to its members and constituents, adding: “It is important to ensure that your staff, members and other constituents are aware that the Foundation is a PMI front group and are further aware of your policy (if applicable) on not working with the tobacco industry.”

Curiously, however, the ICB and UNN have acted in flagrant disregard of these warnings as construction works have reached advanced stage at the ICB massive building in UNN being perfected under TETFund in collaboration with UNICEF. Also, skeletal activities have commenced at the ICB secretariat, which is a testimony to the fact that the partnership has effectively taken off.

Speaking on the development, a lecturer at UNN, who asked not to be named wondered why the institution was getting involved with PMI saying: “A tobacco multinational that named one of its cigarettes Saint Morris (St. Morris) will stop at nothing to market its products and make the world believe that it was serious about ensuring a smoke-free world. And an institution like UNN peopled with thousands of intellectuals fell for that trick? It is unthinkable and I only hope that they won’t regret their decision on the short and long term!”

As tobacco control advocates have emphasised time and time again, the world does not need another new research agenda in the Foundation for a Smoke-Free World (through hitherto credible and respected institutions). What is needed is for companies like PMI to stop opposing the full implementation of the FCTC and to stop aggressively marketing their deadly products. Period!


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