Vietnam: Philip Morris used US-ABC & US Embassy to access top Vietnamese officials

17 March 2017:

Last week, the U.S. Ambassador to Vietnam led a delegation of 30 U.S. businesses, which included Philip Morris, on a Business Mission that met with the Vietnamese Prime Minister and the Minister of Finance. This Mission was facilitated by the US-ASEAN Business Council (US-ABC) whose Vice President is the former Ambassador to Vietnam. Ambassadors and embassies are vital to open top level political doors.

However, the U.S. has good laws that prohibits its Diplomatic Missions from being used to promote tobacco. There are two laws and a Guidance: Doggett Amendment, U.S. Executive Order 13193 and the 2009 Tobacco: Guidance for U.S. Diplomatic and Consular Posts on Trade and Commercial Issues. The Doggett Amendment prohibits the use of funds in carrying out their foreign policy to (1) promote “the sale or export of tobacco or tobacco products,” or (2) seek “the reduction or removal” of non-discriminatory restrictions by foreign governments on tobacco product marketing.

These laws for Diplomatic Missions on tobacco would apply to this Business Mission since Philip Morris was part of the delegation. Health groups sent letters to the U.S. Ambassador in Vietnam pointing out the impact increased tobacco business would have on the Vietnamese people. However the U.S. Embassy saw differently interpreting that the 6–9 March Business Mission was not exclusively for Philip Morris.

PMI is on the Board of Directors of the US-ABC and the Vice Chair of its Custom & Trade Facilitation division. On 7 March, this division reported they met with representatives from the Ministry of Industry and Trade of Vietnam. The tobacco industry wants the government to adopt its solutions to tackle the tobacco smuggling problem; these are not to increase tobacco tax substantially and to work collaboratively with the tobacco industry. Both these industry recommendations contravene the FCTC.

Using the US-ABC platform provided PMI the mantle to gain direct access to the top leadership of Vietnam which responded positively for business, including the tobacco business, to flourish between the two counties. Unfortunately in this business universe, Vietnam’s obligations under the WHO FCTC and Article 5.3 lay forgotten and ignored.

The Vice Chairman of the Vietnam National Assembly reportedly told the US-ABC, Vietnam is ready to make domestic reforms and create favorable conditions for foreign investors. Surely favourable business condition for Philip Morris is bad for public health. US-ABC’s statement says it intends to address key business challenges in Vietnam. Strong tobacco control is a “business challenge” to Philip Morris.

US-ABC’s statement also calls for ways to “further deepen the stakeholder consultation process in Vietnam”. This contradicts the core of FCTC Article 5.3 which calls upon Vietnam to protect its public health policy from vested interests of the tobacco industry.

Gains made in tobacco control in Vietnam are being undermined. For example Vietnam’s tobacco control fund – much needed to support tobacco control campaigns – is under threat. The tobacco industry wants to divert 50% of this fund to industry recommended illicit trade activities.

It is unfortunate that although the U.S. is only one of two countries in the world (UK is the other country) that has good laws to prohibit their Diplomatic Missions from being used to promote tobacco, a tobacco company can still meet with a country’s top leadership through an event promoted by the U.S. Embassy. It’s time for Vietnam to step up implementation of the FCTC, especially Article 5.3.