Clear The Air News Tobacco Blog Rotating Header Image

Former minister’s ties to tobacco industry hurting Ottawa’s anti-smoking work

42-17177519Last updated: May 6, 2010

Source: The Globe and Mail Canada

Led by Barbara McDougall, until recently a director of Imperial Tobacco, federal agency is increasingly being ostracized by health groups worldwide
A Canadian government development agency is increasingly being ostracized by health and tobacco-control organizations around the world who feel it has been tainted by the tobacco-industry links of its chair, former Conservative cabinet minister Barbara McDougall.

The International Development Research Centre manages international projects to discourage smoking in the developing world, but many of the groups it deals with on those initiatives are cutting ties and refusing IDRC money because Ms. McDougall was until recently a member of Imperial Tobacco’s board of directors.

Ms. McDougall’s term on Imperial Tobacco’s board ended on March 31 – but the movement to cut ties with the IDRC’s tobacco programs goes on.

It started a month ago, when the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation pulled a $5.2-million grant for the IDRC’s tobacco-control programs in Africa.

Now, an Australian tobacco-control conference to be held in Sydney this fall has turned down the IDRC’s money, announcing it has refused a sponsor with a “tobacco link.” The Lancet, one of the world’s most respected medical journals, has revoked a request for the agency to help fund a special issue on chronic diseases. And the World Health Organization asked two IDRC representatives to withdraw from a tobacco-control conference in Ghana two weeks ago.

The movement threatens the Canadian agency’s ability to continue tobacco-control work in the developing world, not because the agency will pull out but because groups around the world increasingly won’t touch it, or its money.

On Thursday, Open Medicine, a Canadian medical journal, published an editorial calling on Ms. McDougall to resign from the agency’s board.

It’s an unusual position for the IDRC, long a respected arms-length government agency. Tobacco control is a small part, less than 1 per cent, of its research work.

“IDRC fervently hopes that anti-tobacco groups will be able to work together with IDRC on the vital issue of tobacco control in the future, as we have done in the past,” Angela Prokopiak, the agency’s communications director, said in an e-mail.

Ms. McDougall, who served in several cabinet posts under prime minister Brian Mulroney, including foreign affairs minister, was appointed by Stephen Harper’s cabinet to the agency’s board in 2007, and became chair later that year. She left Imperial’s board a month ago, and her colleagues on the IDRC board have rallied around her performance as chair.

Health and anti-tobacco organizations are extremely sensitive to ties with the tobacco industry, fearing efforts to influence research and policy. The World Health Organization has stated “the industry has and will continue to interfere in implementation of effective tobacco control.”

In 2004, Canada ratified the international Framework Convention on Tobacco Control, which requires governments to protect tobacco-control policy from the industry, and in 2008 – after Ms. McDougall’s appointment – Canada agreed to guidelines that state that people with tobacco industry ties won’t be appointed to boards of agencies that deal with tobacco-control policy.

A big part of the problem, according to Cynthia Callard, executive director of Physicians for a Smoke-Free Canada, is that neither the IDRC nor the Canadian  government responded to letters in March by acknowledging there was a conflict. “They didn’t say, ‘Oops. It won’t happen again,'” she said.

In statements over the past two weeks, however, the agency has promised to ask board members about tobacco-related activities and ensure compliance with the international convention.

Ms. Callard said she never saw any sign the IDRC’s tobacco-control work was tainted but in the eyes of organizations abroad, it’s now an agency headed by a tobacco-company insider. She insisted the agency’s tobacco programs are important ones, but argued that to save them, they might have to be transferred to some other agency, at least for a few years.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>