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WHO takes on tobacco firms in battle against smoking

Philip Morris says the report does not reflect the current approach of the tobacco industry Keystone

A Swiss-led panel of experts from the World Health Organisation (WHO) has accused cigarette manufacturers of trying to sabotage its efforts to combat smoking.

This content was published on August 2, 2000 - 08:03

The panel, led by the director of the Swiss Public Health Office, Thomas Zeltner, concluded that tobacco companies had engaged in "systematic efforts" to "undermine and subvert" the WHO's anti-smoking campaign.

The damning report is likely to provide the WHO with useful ammunition in its attempts to persuade countries to sign up to the world's first international treaty to curb smoking and ban cigarette advertising.

The report states that "the attempted subversion had been elaborate, well-financed, sophisticated and usually invisible". It alleges that cigarette manufacturers tried to cut its budget, pit other United Nations agencies against it, and distort results of important scientific studies on tobacco.

One of the world's largest cigarette manufacturers, British American Tobacco, has denied the accusations, and attacked the WHO for refusing to engage in "meaningful" dialogue.

"Despite repeated requests to the WHO for dialogue and offers to participate in the process of policy formation... we have not been consulted in a meaningful way," said a spokesman.

The report serves as a damning indictment of the lengths to which tobacco firms will go to protect their industry. The WHO said it had evidence that a number of scientists working for its health committees were also paid by cigarette makers but did not disclose their links to tobacco multinationals.

Much of the information contained in the report comes from tobacco company documents, which were made public after lawsuits against the firms in the United States.

The vice-president of Philip Morris's European Union operations, David Davies, told swissinfo that the WHO's accusations did not stand up to scrutiny.

"We do not believe that any of the documents included in the report substantiate a conclusion that we obstructed the WHO's health message about tobacco or its tobacco control initiatives."

Davies admitted that Philip Morris had been aggressive in defending its interests in the past, but he said the company's attitude had since changed. "In the past, we probably... were too aggressive. Today we are seeking a more constructive approach."

Derek Yach, of the WHO's anti-tobacco initiative, was quoted as saying that the agency was shocked that "so much of this work was done under cover. The scale of the intensity and the volume of all these activities are really disturbing."

In a specific case, the WHO report alleged that top executives from Philip Morris, had devised a plan to "contain, neutralise and reorient" the agency's anti-tobacco initiatives, at a secret meeting in Boca Raton, Florida, in 1988.

The WHO claims that many of the tactics agreed at this meeting were still being implemented.

Philip Morris admitted the meeting had taken place, but denied its purpose was to undermine the WHO. "The WHO was one of several subjects discussed at the meeting," said Davies. "We sought to find ways to make our views known, to learn about what the WHO was examining in relation to matters that affected our business. And how we could disseminate the views that we held on the issues where we differed from them."

WHO spokesman, David Nabarro, said the report was particularly worrying because "it suggests that a small number of companies... have attempted to subvert the process by which the WHO is run."

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