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Earlier this year Philip Morris International (PMI) launched PMI IMPACT – a funding initiative for projects “dedicated to fighting illegal trade and related crimes, such as corruption, organized [sic] crime and money laundering”. In its first funding call in 2016, PMI IMPACT invited proposals focusing specifically on the illicit tobacco trade in the European Union (EU). Public organisations, law enforcement, private entities and nongovernmental organisations (NGOs) were all encouraged to submit.

The initiative puts forward three focus areas; research, education and awareness, and action. Each proposal is required to address at least one area.

PMI pledged US$100 million for three funding rounds and publicised that more than 200 expressions of interest had been submitted to the first funding call from 170 organisations, including government agencies, universities, research institutes and private entities.

Funding applications are judged by an expert panel, consisting of seven individuals with very close links to various United Nations (UN) agencies. These include Mahmoud Cherif Bassiouni, who has previously held 22 UN positions, Catherine Volz, who served in the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) for over 18 years, and Suzanne Hayden, former senior advisor to the UNODC.

PMI IMPACT is not the first research funding initiative from the tobacco company. In 2000, it launched the PMI External Research Program (PMERP), which administered grants to scientists for research on multiple topics, including nontobacco causes of cardiovascular diseases and genetic susceptibility to cancers. Such initiatives are tied to the tobacco industry’s long history of producing misleading research, begining with its attempts in the early 1950s to discredit the then newly-proven causal link between smoking and lung cancer. PMI IMPACT can be seen as another attempt at controlling the discourse around science, the research itself and its

The illicit tobacco trade is one of several policy areas where the tobacco industry is attempting to not only gain access to the policy process, but also to take part in this process as a valued expert and stakeholder.

However, given the industry’s historic complicity in the illicit trade, its questionable preexisting research on the topic and its repeated use of illicit trade as a counter argument to the further regulation of its products, its motives in launching PMI IMPACT are arguably spurious.

In 2004, PMI paid the EU $1.25 billion to settle claims over the company’s involvement in tobacco smuggling, and committed to produce an annual ‘Project Star’ report about illicit tobacco in the EU. These reports were created by the global accountancy firm KPMG and have been widely criticised by academics. PMI has also commissioned multiple KPMG reports on illicit tobacco in Australia. Cancer Council Victoria has produced critiques of several of these reports leading to the Australian Government stated in 2013 that “the tobacco industry`s estimates of the size of the illicit market are not considered to be accurate”. Multiple tobacco companies have commissioned similar reports by Deloitte – another global accountancy firm.

Internal documents include examples of PMI internal documents include examples of the company attempting to influence the drafting of the Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (FCTC). In 2000, for example, PMI argued to the US Departments of Commerce and Health and Human Services that government involvement with the tobacco industry would be a more effective way of combating illicit trade than the measures put forward in the FCTC. The consultancy group Mongoven, Biscoe & Duchin Inc advised PMI that future FCTC protocols would have a bigger impact on the tobacco industry than the FCTC itself and so should become the company’s main focus. PMI IMPACT might be seen as a key part of continued efforts to undermine policy, particularly the Protocol to Eliminate Illicit Trade in Tobacco Products, known as the Illicit Trade Protocol (ITP).

Calls for new research on a particular topic carry with them the underlying suggestion that pre-existing research is flawed or lacking. The arrival of PMI IMPACT may be an attempt by the industry to further control data on illicit trade and use this to influence policy. With only 17 Parties needed before the ITP enters into force, it is essential that PMI IMPACT, and the research that results from it, are viewed with intense scrutiny by researchers and Governments alike.

Allen Gallagher & Karen Evans-Reeves,
Tobacco Control Research Group,
University of Bath

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