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Shadow meetings – How TI counters tobacco control

22 November 2018:

The 6th Regional Meeting of Smoke-free Cities in the Asia Pacific Region has just concluded (20-21 November) in Hoi An, Vietnam where more than 100 government officials and experts from Cambodia, Indonesia, Lao PDR, Malaysia, Mongolia, Myanmar, Philippines, Thailand, and Vietnam met to collaborate on promoting health through smoke-free tourism. While the delegates were gathered in the heritage city of Hoi An discussing ‘Reshaping tourism through smoke-free environments’ in Hoi An, Philip Morris International (PMI) was meeting with a National Assembly leader in Vietnam.

On 19 November, Stacey Kennedy, PMI’s President of South and Southeast Asia, met with the Vice Chairman of the National Assembly (NA) conveying the message that Philip Morris has researched and developed alternative cigarettes which are less harmful to health than traditional cigarettes.

The Hoi An Declaration on Smoke-free Tourism includes an important clause that PMI appears to be acting to pre-empt and counter: “In order to effectively protect public health, smoke-free laws and policies should be comprehensive, applying to all public places without exception and including new and emerging products that sustain nicotine addiction.

PMI’s request to the National Assembly leader was tactical – that they should provide a legal framework to enable its new products to be developed in Vietnam, and on its part, it will provide its own scientific research as well as research from organizations in the United States and Europe.

According to a press report, the Vice Chairman had said that the National Assembly was ready to create favourable conditions for foreign businesses to invest and expand their business. Getting an endorsement from this National Assembly leader will help PMI to oppose a ban on use of heated tobacco products in public spaces, as adopted in the Hoi An Declaration.

The Vietnamese Ministry of Health has an official position to reject any research conducted by the PMI-funded initiative, the Foundation for Tobacco Free World (FSFW) on the basis that there is a fundamental conflict of interest between the tobacco industry and public health (Article 5.3). This MOH’s policy is now being undermined.

Organising shadow meetings to coincide with tobacco control meetings and events, and hijacking the health message is becoming more common in Asia and globally as a way to ‘pull the rug from under tobacco control’.

Table 1 shows some examples of how the tobacco industry shadows tobacco control events and holds its own meetings, sometimes on the same day, in the same city, or release its own reports/ messages simultaneously to capture media space, and counter or hijack the health message.

Table 1: TI’s Shadow Meetings/ Launches

City Date Tobacco Control Tobacco Industry
Hoi An/ Hanoi Nov 2018 20-21 Nov: 6th Regional meeting of Smoke-free Cities in the Asia Pacific Region 19 Nov: PMI meeting with National Assembly leader to promote and obtain endorsement for its business and for heated tobacco products as being safer
Geneva Oct 2018 1-6 Oct: CICG -COP8 – agenda item included e-cigarettes and heated tobacco products 2 Oct: Novotel – launch of new publication promoting harm reduction which includes heated tobacco products
Bali / London Sep 2018 13-15 Sep: APACT – 1000 delegates from 30 countries gathered in Bali. FSFW was prohibited from attending. SEATCA launched ‘Asian TI Interference Index’ 13 Sep: FSFW announced its call for proposals to develop a Smoke-Free Index. This index supposedly evaluates industry progress toward achieving a smoke-free world
Global May 31 WHO World No Tobacco Day: ‘Tobacco Breaks Hearts: Choose health, not tobacco’  30 May: PMI issued a statement to change ‘World No Tobacco Day’, to ‘World No Smoking Day’.
Beirut / Cairo Feb 2018 26-28 Feb: Beirut – WHO-EMRO meeting for government officials and NGOs to strengthen FCTC Article 5.3 implementation 28 Feb-1 Mar: Cairo – 3rd Arab Tobacco Conference – attended by state monopolies on protecting TI because of”international decisions threatening tobacco sector” and State Parties.

The non-health sector, especially trade, remains a vulnerable platform that the tobacco industry uses to access senior officials and policy makers. Two days earlier, (17 November) through the US ASEAN Business Council, PMI was part of US businesses that met with the Vietnamese Prime Minister in a side event at the 26th APEC Summit in Papua New Guinea. 

The business executives said they want to hold more dialogue with Vietnam’s authorities, and that their companies were ready to arrange for US experts and scientists to join the Vietnamese Government in building State management policies for a number of sectors, including tobacco.

Clearly this is not possible for the tobacco business as Vietnam is a party to the WHO FCTC and Article 5.3 applies. However, PMI did not waste any time, and within just two days was already knocking on the door of the Vietnamese National Assembly to promote its business.

The sooner Vietnam and all Parties to the FCTC implement Article 5.3, the better for public health. More importantly, there remains plenty of work to be done to create awareness among the non-health sector that the FCTC applies to the whole government to reduce tobacco use in any form.