Over the past year, pro-harm reduction tobacco control and public health experts have sought to meet privately with philanthropist Michael Bloomberg and his foundation Bloomberg Philanthropies’ anti-vaping leadership. They have been rebuffed, according to an article by reporter Marc Gunther.
The article provides an interesting look at how Bloomberg responds to criticism from outside experts: he doesn’t. In response, his minions offered little more than a recital of Bloomberg Philanthropies’ greatest hits—the tobacco control talking points that serve as gospel for tens of thousands of anti-tobacco and anti-vaping activists around the world who are funded by the billionaire.
Bloomberg has dedicated over a billion dollars to tobacco control efforts over the last decade. And along with a Bloomberg grant comes a demand that funding recipients adopt the billionaire’s puritanical dedication to stamping out nicotine use of all sorts—including low-risk alternatives to cigarettes. In 2019, Bloomberg dedicated $160 million—managed by the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids—solely to banning flavored vaping products.
Last March, Gunther’s article in the Chronicle of Philanthropy, describing Bloomberg’s anti-vaping zeal, brought much-needed attention to the issue. Following that, some of the experts quoted in Gunther’s article, and others, wrote to Michael Bloomberg to request a private discussion with the former New York City mayor.
The letter, signed by 23 experts in tobacco control, drug policy and harm reduction, proposed a meeting between a “small expert delegation” and Bloomberg. The authors offered to make a brief, data-oriented presentation and then discuss the issues. “This would be a private meeting for you to engage with and test data and ideas that suggest a different approach to tobacco control may now yield great benefits,” the letter says.
The authors received a response from Bloomberg Philanthropies’ Public Health Program Lead Kelly Henning, who essentially told them that the science on vaping was settled, and thanks but no thanks.
Citing the existence of “evidence” from a variety of anti-vaping organizations supposedly proving her point, Henning wrote, “From our perspective, the evidence that flavored e-cigarettes attract, and addict youth is strong and the evidence that flavored products are contributing in a meaningful and measurable manner to reducing cigarette use in the US on a population basis is weak.”
“We have not come to these positions lightly,” Henning concluded, “and know that others, including those of you who took the time to write to us, have a different perspective. Please share with us any new or emerging data that you have that is critical to this discussion or contradicts the position I have outlined.”
The response was a dismissal, despite the purported willingness to review new data. Henning and the anti-vaping tobacco control fundamentalists—chiefly Tobacco-Free Kids president Matthew Myers—that have shaped Bloomberg’s positions on vaping and tobacco harm reduction have no desire to confuse the boss by exposing him to debate on these issues. He has already adopted their written-in-stone positions. Why risk raising doubts in his mind?
Whether Michael Bloomberg himself saw the letter is unknown, and it probably doesn’t matter. If he did, he turned the response over to Henning. If he didn’t, the result was the same. As a practical matter, the discussion was dead before it could begin. No space would be made on the Bloomberg-approved list of cherry-picked evidence for research Bloomberg Philanthropies’ tobacco control staff had ignored or dismissed to begin with.
Many of the experts who had sought the meeting with Bloomberg, and some others, responded to Henning’s letter last September. They asked again for an in-person dialogue, but followed the polite request with a brutal 16-page, point-by-point takedown of Henning’s claims—with citations, since Henning had asked for “new or emerging data.” The authors described Bloomberg Philanthropies’ lack of accountability and transparency, and offered multiple examples of the organization’s conflicts of interest and influence-peddling in low-and-middle-income countries.
Referring to the $1.1 billion spent on tobacco control over the last decade by Bloomberg Philanthropies, the authors asked, “While much of this work may be beneficial, what happens if Bloomberg Philanthropies makes policy errors that work against the public interest? If it does make such errors, how does it correct them quickly? In short, what is the governance and accountability for the public interest behind this flow of philanthropic money?
“How does the foundation respond to informed critics with concerns that it may be doing more harm than good?”
That last one’s easy. Bloomberg responds to critics by buying them off, overwhelming them with well-funded opposition, or ignoring them. What he doesn’t do is consider their positions or change his mind. And he’s not starting now.