Why is Phillip Morris spending $1 billion to end smoking?

Will Big Tobacco’s big dollars help the small vaping industry survive and prosper?

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A major multinational tobacco corporation is pledging $1 billion to advance the “goal of eliminating smoking worldwide.” Philip Morris International (PMI) has committed $80 million a year for twelve years to fund the Foundation for a Smoke-Free World (FSFW).

The announcement was made by the new organization’s founder and president-designate Derek Yach, at the Global Tobacco and Nicotine Forum in New York City, a tobacco industry convention that now also includes many vapor industry participants.

According to a press release, the foundation “will build upon recent shifts in policy and science to fund research and support collaborative initiatives to accelerate progress in reducing harm and deaths from smoking worldwide.”

What is PMI buying for $1 billion?

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Why is PMI doing this? What do they hope to get from it? Gigantic corporations don’t generally spend this much money on public relations efforts. The FSFW claims that the cigarette giant will have no input into what it does.

“Importantly, the grant terms, bylaws, and non-profit status of the Foundation preclude PMI or other tobacco industry representatives from involvement in Foundation governance, or from having any influence over the Foundation’s funding decisions, strategy, or activities,” says the press release. “The Foundation will have an independent research agenda, ownership of its data, freedom to publish, and strict protections against conflict of interest.”

Impressive. But it’s difficult to believe that PMI wants nothing for its investment except potentially flattering research on its reduced-risk nicotine products. If it is merely a public relations effort, it’s something new under the sun. It’s shock-and-awe PR.

The anti-nicotine zealots are already starting to froth at the mouth.

Or maybe it’s an honest initiative. Maybe this multinational corporation is expressing its humanity. After all, corporations are people, according to Mitt Romney. Their corporate “sustainability” site certainly makes them look like cheery corporate citizens. And $1 billion over 12 years isn’t exactly going to break the bank for a company that hauls in profits of about $20 billion every year.

“Our efforts are squarely focused on ultimately replacing cigarettes with smoke-free products, by offering the millions of men and women who continue to smoke a better alternative,” PMI CEO André Calantzopoulos told the Financial Times. “We are standing at the cusp of a true revolution and look forward to the foundation’s objective review of our efforts and efforts of others.”

Derek Yach is running the show

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Derek Yach has been pushing engagement between public health and the tobacco industry for some time. At the 2015 Global Forum on Nicotine (GFN) in Warsaw, Poland, he spoke of his hope that tobacco companies would commit to funding research on reduced-risk products, and that public health would accept their involvement.

Yach delivered the keynote speech at that GFN — a conference that, in 2015, was still very focused on vaping — and praised Mitch Zeller’s claim that the FDA would recognize a continuum of risk in nicotine products. Nobody in the vaping community believed a word of what Zeller said about low-risk products, but Yach liked it.

Then a year later he took to Twitter to cheer the FDA’s newly announced deeming regulations — which, as vapers had predicted, were a virtual ban on vaping products. That raised doubts about Yach for many vapers — even for many who had cheered him in the film A Billion Lives. Clearly he didn’t understand that the independent vaping industry would be crushed by the new regulations — or he didn’t care.

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Yach is obviously comfortable at the intersection of big business and government policy. He was a senior vice president at PepsiCo. He’s also worked for the Rockefeller Foundation, and led the development of the Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (FCTC) at the World Health Organization. He serves on advisory boards for the Clinton Global Initiative and the World Economic Forum.

From his tobacco control-centric view of the vaping marketplace to his history as a button-down corporate player, there may not be room in Yach’s low-risk nicotine worldview for the donut-shop business model of the independent vape industry. Then again, we don’t know yet who else will be on the FSFW board, or how decisions for grant approvals will even be made.

“I fully understand at a personal level I’m going to have to earn the trust of my colleagues,” Yach told the Financial Times. “My motivation remains the potential in lives saved, which could not be bigger in any other area.”

Will this be good for vaping?

Clearly the Foundation for a Smoke-Free World is going to be run as a typical large corporate enterprise. Will it provide benefits for vapers or the independent vaping industry? It’s much too early to tell. Likewise, it’s too early to know if the FSFW will focus research dollars disproportionately on the reduced-harm products made by PMI — like the heat-not-burn device IQOS — and other future tobacco-industry funders of the foundation.

If the FSFW funds good research on vaping issues that aren’t getting attention and funding now — like the importance of flavored e-liquids for adult vapers, or comprehensive surveys of vape shops — it would be beneficial. But unless it also funds work by established tobacco and nicotine researchers, recipients of funding will suffer from the stigma of its primary financial benefactor.

If tobacco control hardliners are able to diminish the reputations of FSFW-funded scientists by tarring them with the Big Tobacco brush, legitimate academics will shy away from the new foundation as a source of support. The anti-nicotine zealots are already starting to froth at the mouth.

Will Big Tobacco’s big dollars help the small vaping industry survive and prosper?

The University of California-San Francisco’s professional hater Stanton Glantz made note of the FSFW launch in his blog with the headline, “Derek Yach’s journey to the Dark Side is now complete.”

The Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids’ president Matthew Myers issued a press release stating, “The amount Philip Morris is spending on its new foundation is a drop in the bucket compared to the $75 billion in revenues and over $17 billion in profits the company reported in 2016, most of it from selling cigarettes.” (That’s true. Of course, remember that Myers negotiated the 2009 Tobacco Control Act in cooperation with Philip Morris, essentially helping to protect the company’s U.S. cigarette business from any new future competition.)

A concerted effort by the tobacco control and public health establishment to smear anyone who accepts money from the FSFW might have an impact on its ability to operate with any credibility. If serious researchers are afraid to accept grants because of the Philip Morris connection, the new organization would become counterproductive to those who seek to reduce smoking death by promoting low-risk nicotine products. It would become a joke.

American vaping research has become an endless stream of bad studies desperately looking for risks, and almost none considering possible benefits.

But let’s not be too hasty. If top-notch researchers do turn to the FSFW for funding, any blacklist by the old-school tobacco controllers would be easily broken. That might accelerate their rocket ride to the planet Irrelevance, but even better, it could mean a source of plentiful no-strings funding for good vaping research, which just doesn’t exist now.

The current system of studies funded by the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and the FDA rewards researchers who choose to gear their work toward helping the feds “better regulate” (restrict) low-risk products. American vaping research has become an endless stream of bad studies desperately looking for risks, and almost none considering possible vaping benefits. The FSFW could help.

What do we want? Not much. Good, thoughtful studies on the things that can make vaping even better, safer, and more accepted by more people. Will Big Tobacco’s big dollars help the small vaping industry survive and prosper? Now that’s a good question.

Jim McDonald

I spend most of my time studying the regulatory, legislative and scientific challenges to vaping, advocating for our right to exist, and talking with others who do the same. Consider me a source for information, and feel free to agree or disagree with anything I say. I love good coffee and sweet Michigan cherries. My childhood hero was Gordie Howe.

  • Kevin

    I believe it could help if done without strings attached

  • David. Former Winston man

    Jim let me know if you ever want to to chat about issues like this that you report on. AllI I can say is Really????? My phone is 609 820-7211. Thx. David Goerlitz former Winston Ma .

  • All that money spent on developing insights into the harm reduction concept could be very valuable, especially given the flow of ideologically motivated junk from the conventional research sources. In my view, only appropriate approach for vapers at this point is to have an open mind, to make a fair assessment of its actions and processes when it actually starts doing things, and to tolerate a few missteps as it finds it feet. Stay vigilant, stay sceptical, but don’t rush to a premature judgement.