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Tobacco Industry Scheme Alleged

By Marc Kaufman, Washington Post, Wednesday 2 August 2000; A01

The tobacco industry has been waging a sophisticated, secret campaign for years to undermine efforts by the World Health Organization to combat smoking around the globe, the agency charges in a scathing report being released today.

The detailed, 240-page report accuses the tobacco industry of working to pit other United Nations-affiliated agencies against the WHO, of trying to discredit the WHO and cut its budgets, and of hiring supposedly independent experts who grossly distorted the results of scientific research into the effects of smoking.

It also charges that tobacco companies secretly placed their own consultants at the Geneva-based agency to monitor its anti-smoking activities, and even secretly monitored some meetings and obtained confidential documents.

The report, commissioned by the WHO last fall, was written by a committee led by Thomas Zeltner, director of the Swiss Federal Office of Public Health, that included three other international experts on public health and government relations. Much of its information comes from tobacco company documents made public through U.S. court proceedings.

One chapter details a 1988 plan headed by Philip Morris Cos. chief executive Geoffrey Bible--who was then head of the company’s international tobacco arm--to attack WHO anti-smoking initiatives worldwide. The report concludes that many aspects of the effort, called the Boca Raton plan, are still being implemented today.

The tobacco companies’ own documents show that they viewed WHO, an international public health agency, as one of their foremost enemies, the report concludes. The documents show further that the tobacco companies instigated global strategies to discredit and impede WHO’s ability to carry out its mission.

In addition, the report details ways in which the industry created and used ostensibly independent quasi-academic, public policy and business organizations.

The documents also show that tobacco company strategies to undermine WHO relied heavily on international and scientific experts with hidden financial ties to the industry, the report concludes. Perhaps most disturbing, the documents show that tobacco companies quietly influenced other U.N. agencies and representatives of developing countries to resist WHO’s tobacco control initiatives.

David Davies, a vice president with Philip Morris International, said in a statement last night that some company documents highlighted by the WHO do not reflect an approach that today we would adopt with WHO. . . . They are the product of a polarized and unproductive environment in which few solutions were sought, and conflict prevailed over consensus. Philip Morris regrets this.

The WHO’s assertions of undue influence are based on selected excerpts from more than 35 million industry documents that have been made publicly available in the U.S. litigation, he said.

While many of these documents reflect adversarial positions and often confrontational attitudes on both sides, we do not believe that they substantiate a conclusion that Philip Morris obstructed WHO’s health messages about tobacco or its tobacco control initiatives, Davies said.

We recognize that there is an atmosphere of mistrust and confrontation to which we may have contributed, Davies concluded. But if we move beyond the past, there is a genuine possibility for practical solutions and progress.

While U.S. tobacco companies claim to have changed their ways in recent years, it is not enough for tobacco companies to now begin acting ’responsibly’ in the U.S., if they continue to use unacceptable strategies and tactics in the rest of the world, the report states.

Cigarette makers have faced intense criticism and pressure in recent years as industry documents began to emerge indicating that the companies knew more about the hazards and addictiveness of smoking than they had revealed and that they kept that information from the public. The documents were used in the recent smokers’ lawsuit in Florida, which resulted in a record $145 billion punitive damages award last month against the industry. But much less information has to come to light about the industry’s activities overseas.

Much of the report seeks to document tobacco industry efforts to undermine WHO anti-tobacco activities in the developing world. In particular, it accuses the industry of working to convince the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization that poor nations should not emphasize anti-smoking efforts because tobacco is such a potentially lucrative cash crop. In addition, the report cites industry efforts to portray tobacco control efforts as a First World concern that Third World nations should ignore.

A 1988 meeting in Boca Raton, Fla., is highlighted as an example of how the industry sought to fight anti-tobacco efforts.

The action plan that followed, the report says, is a master plan for, among many goals, attacking WHO’s tobacco control programs, influencing the priorities of WHO Regional Offices, and targeting the structure, management and resources of WHO. The Plan identified 26 global threats to the tobacco industry and multiple strategies for countering each. The report also says that Philip Morris used its Kraft Foods subsidiary as a way to influence agencies involved with anti-tobacco efforts.

That top executives of tobacco companies sat together to design and set in motion elaborate strategies to subvert a public health organization is unacceptable and must be condemned, the report’s executive summary concludes.

The report also details the work of lawyer Paul Dietrich, who in 1990 was appointed to the Pan American Health Organization, a regional arm of the WHO. Dietrich is credited in some tobacco industry documents with redirecting some WHO efforts away from tobacco control. According to the report, Dietrich was a paid consultant to tobacco companies during that period, though the report also says that he denies the charge.

The report alleges that Philip Morris and the British American Tobacco Co. orchestrated a series of dirty tricks aimed at disrupting the 8th World Conference on Tobacco or Health in Buenos Aires in 1992. These included staging elaborate diversions from the Conference, and training journalists to both hound a conference participant and take over a. . .press conference, the report states.

Some of the report’s allegations involve suspicions that could not be proved. For instance, a 1989 document describes Philip Morris’s knowledge of the money received by the WHO’s Tobacco or Health project from a Japanese shipbuilding foundation, and of plans to explore a variety of avenues for containing. . .funding from private sources.

In 1993, the WHO group learned that its share of the Japanese fund would be cut from $600,000 to $300,000 for 1994-95. In 1995, the funds were eliminated, and the money was shifted to the WHO’s leprosy program. Staff members were never told why the funds had been shifted, but they suspected that Philip Morris had something to do with it.

The WHO report comes from a four-person committee that was asked to determine whether, and to what extent, tobacco companies attempted to influence the development and implementation of tobacco control policies at the WHO and other U.N. agencies.

Other committee members were former U.S. Food and Drug Administration commissioner David Kessler; Anke Martiny, a former member of the German parliament; and Fazel Randera, inspector general of intelligence for South Africa and a former member of that country’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Former FDA lawyer Ann Witt led the committee’s research team.