By Gustavo Capdevila – Inter Press Service – August 2, 2000
The World Health Organisation (WHO) lashed out at transnational tobacco corporations Wednesday, accusing them of sabotaging efforts to control tobacco consumption through pressure tactics against the agency and other international organisations.
The investigations conducted by a committee of WHO-designated experts concluded that the tobacco industry used a wide range of tactics in its attempts to influence various United Nations organisations.
Among the strategies the tobacco industry employed to these ends, the committee mentions infiltrating the agency and “establishing inappropriate relationships with WHO staff to influence policy.” They also tried to “undermine WHO tobacco control activities by putting pressure on relevant agency budgets,” and used other UN agencies to influence or resist WHO tobacco policies.
The investigations were based on a series of internal tobacco corporation documents that were made public during legal actions in the United States against the industry. The documents came from Philip Morris, R.J. Reynolds, Brown & Williams, American Tobacco, Lorillard Tobacco, the Tobacco Institute, the Council for Tobacco Research and British American Tobacco.
In some cases, the companies attempted to use other UN agencies to obtain information on WHO activities and to plot interference. “Tobacco company lobbying was aimed at influencing the FAO (UN Food and Agriculture Organisation) to take a stance against WHO’s tobacco control policies and to promote the economic importance of tobacco as more significant than the health consequences of tobacco use.”
The corporations also concentrated on international institutions such as the World Bank, the UN Conference on Trade and Development, the UN Economic and Social Council and the International Labour Organisation.
WHO director-general, Gro Harlem Brundtland, former prime minister of Norway, has been involved since she assumed her post in January 1998 in a campaign to combat smoking and its lethal consequences for the health of the world population. Brundtland commissioned a group of experts led by the Director of the Swiss Federal Office of Public Health, Thomas Zeltner, to conduct the investigation.
“Tobacco companies used ‘independent’ individuals and institutions to attack the WHO’s competence and priorities in published articles and presentations to the media and to politicians, while concealing its own role in promoting these attacks,” says the committee’s report.
The evidence uncovered by investigators indicates that the corporations used numerous third-party organisations to try to influence the WHO, including unions, tobacco company “front groups,” and food companies affiliated with the tobacco corporations themselves. Industry tactics also involved manipulating public and scientific debates on the health effects of smoking.
Tobacco companies “secretly funded ‘independent’ experts to conduct research, publish papers, appear at conferences and lobby WHO’s scientific investigators with the intention of influencing, discrediting or distorting study results.”
The most notorious results of this strategy was the falsification of a study on environmental tobacco smoke by the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC). The Philip Morris Corporation launched a far-reaching and well- funded publicity campaign to counteract the negative effects of the IARC conclusions on the tobacco industry.
The documents the investigators studied prove that the tobacco transnationals set up press conferences to draw attention away from events organised by the WHO related to anti-smoking efforts. The study also highlights the role played by Paul Dietrich, a US attorney who has a long history of working with the tobacco industry. Dietrich wrote articles and editorials attacking the WHO and its policies that were published between 1988 and 1993 in major newspapers including the Wall Street Journal, the International Herald Tribune and the Washington Times.
The investigation recommends that the WHO provide assistance to its member countries to determine whether legal conditions exist for demanding compensation from the tobacco transnationals. It also encourages the WHO to monitor the corporations to determine if they are continuing similar reprehensible behaviour, and proposes that the health agency make public the results of such follow-up.