Malaysian think tank ends tobacco industry funding

20 February 2019

Malaysia’s prominent think tank, Institute for Democracy and Economic Affairs (Ideas) has announced that it will no longer accept funds from the tobacco industry. Ideas made this announcement soon after The Guardian’s exposed it as one of the 106 free-market think tanks that have received donations from transnational tobacco companies (TTCs).

Ideas’ interest and activities in tobacco control appears to have commenced in 2016, which coincides with the funding from Philip Morris and Japan Tobacco International (Table 1). British American Tobacco (BAT) has also indicated that it “supports” Ideas but details are not available on the nature of this support.

IDEAS actively made policy statements that echoed the tobacco industry’s position against tobacco control measures to curb smoking in Malaysia.

Table 1: Tobacco industry’s financial contribution to IDEAS

TTCs Amount (MYR) Year
Philip Morris Singapore 115,594 (USD 28,332) 2015
Philip Morris (Malaysia) Sdn Bhd 32,629 (USD 7,997) 2016
JT International Trading Sdn Bhd 100,348 (USD 24,595) 2017
Philip Morris (Malaysia) Sdn Bhd 75,000 (USD 18,382)
Philip Morris Singapore 23,162 (USD 5,677)
JT International S.A. 180,034 (USD 44,126) 2018
JT International Trading Sdn Bhd 81,300 (USD 19,927)
Philip Morris Asia Ltd 43,475 (USD 10,717)

Between 2016 and 2018, Ideas publicly criticized the Health Ministry’s proposal on plain packaging (April 2018) and was also one of the 47 think tanks worldwide that signed the “International Coalition Letter (2016) Against Plain Packaging” addressed to the Director-General of WHO. In 2017, Ideas had also opposed the government’s proposal on tax increase and increasing cigarette prices (from RM17 to RM21.50) using the same argument as the industry that imposing higher taxes would boost the illicit trade.

The Guardian highlighted that Ideas often cited tobacco industry-funded Nielsen and Oxford Economics reports in its statements and the writer of its report is a senior fellow at the US-based free-market think tank Cato Institute that received funds from tobacco companies and objected to regulating tobacco.

As a Party to the WHO FCTC, ratified in 2005, Malaysia is committed to achieve its obligation in implementing strong tobacco control policies and measures.

Following The Guardian’s exposé on 24 January, Ideas immediately issued a statement that they follow “a strict policy of editorial independence”, and “thus no donations influence our research and analytical outputs”. However, their relationship with the tobacco industry has casted doubt on their studies and position to regulate smoking in Malaysia.

Ideas promotes “cooperation with the private sector” which in this case is the tobacco industry. The publications (here and here) produced during the funding period is still available on its website.

Through an open letter, Ideas announced, “we decided at the meeting of the IDEAS Board in December in 2018 that we would no longer accept grants from tobacco companies” is welcomed. This decision is made public on its website.

Several local institutions and organizations have received contributions from the tobacco industry and based on publicly available information seems to be limited to Yayasan Salam. Such contribution is part of the tobacco industry’s corporate social responsibility where they target high profile organizations to partner with.

Governments, universities and non-governmental organizations must not partner with and reject funds from the tobacco industry and make public this policy on their websites. Such move would be in line with the FCTC Article 5.3 Guidelines, recommendation 4.7 call for “Government institutions and their bodies should not have any financial interest in the tobacco industry …”

For further information:

SEATCA Toolkit on FCTC Article 5.3: