Two of the world’s biggest tobacco companies tried to undermine anti-smoking efforts in Asia by seeking to influence health policy in China and scientific research in Thailand, according to two new studies.
British American Tobacco Plc, Europe’s largest cigarette maker, helped form the Beijing Liver Foundation “to reprioritise the agenda of the Ministry of Public Health,” one study said, citing company documents. A senior scientist at Philip Morris International Inc, the world’s biggest cigarette maker, gained a “disturbing” and “inappropriate” influence over teaching at a Bangkok research institute, the second study said.
Smoking could kill 1 billion people this century, 10 times more than in the past 100 years, and is “the single most preventable cause of death,” according to the World Health Organisation. The two reports, funded by the US National Cancer Institute, show how cigarette makers seek to counter anti-smoking measures by forging ties with policymakers and scientists.
“Such links are of great concern to the public health community, which is working hard to reduce deaths and disease due to tobacco,” said the editors of the journal that published the studies, PLoS Medicine, part of the Public Library of Science.
The studies examined the Legacy Tobacco Documents Library, a collection of almost 10 million documents produced by tobacco companies in response to litigation in the 1990s.
“British American Tobacco welcomes sensible regulation and we always seek, wherever possible, to engage with regulators to work towards balanced legal frameworks,” Catherine Armstrong, a London-based BAT spokeswoman, said in an e-mail. “Far from undermining laws, we believe our input can mean the laws are workable and realistic and can be implemented effectively.”
The research is being published now because the full collection of documents became available online only this year, Kelley Lee, who participated in the BAT study, said in an e-mail.
“Focusing on decades old documents does nothing to progress the objective of achieving effective and comprehensive regulation of tobacco today,” Marija Sepic, a spokeswoman for Philip Morris in Lausanne, Switzerland, said in an e-mail. “The use of these documents is disingenuous as they do not reflect Philip Morris International’s views today.”
In the first study, Monique Muggli and colleagues from the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota, studied reports from London- based BAT, the maker of Dunhill and Lucky Strike brand cigarettes. The company helped form the Beijing Liver Foundation to “reprioritise the agenda of the Ministry of Public Health,” and “to divert the public attention from smoking and health issues to liver diseases” in China, the study says, citing internal reports obtained from BAT.
“To focus on liver diseases will take the heat away from anti-smoking and smoking-related issues,” according to a BAT document entitled “Beijing Liver Foundation Report 1999.”
The foundation gave British American Tobacco “a channel to reach our customers” by posting “company positions on smoking and health issues, and balanced views on lung cancer diseases” on its Web site, the study in PLoS Medicine said, citing the same report.
Sixty percent of China’s men smoke, representing one-third of the world’s smokers, a report in the Lancet medical journal said in October.
The second study, led by Ross MacKenzie of the School of Public Health at the University of Sydney, said Roger Walk, who became director of worldwide scientific affairs at Philip Morris in the 1990s, “influenced the study and teaching of environmental toxicology” at the Bangkok-based Chulabhorn Research Institute, or CRI, which became a partner of the Geneva- based WHO in 2005.
Company documents show Walk formed a working relationship in the 1990s with Mathuros Ruchirawat, the institute’s vice president for research, the study said. Walk was offered a teaching position on a postgraduate course about inhalation toxicology in November 1994, and invited to help develop the curriculum for a United Nations-funded toxicology training program in 1996.
“The active and ongoing involvement of industry consultants in curriculum development and the training of future researchers and regulators is particularly disturbing and, in our view, wholly inappropriate,” MacKenzie and colleagues wrote.
Mathuros knew of Walk’s association with Philip Morris, though other CRI scientists probably didn’t, the study said, citing a 1993 fax from Walk to the company’s lawyers.
The study is “full of innuendos and unsupported facts,” Mathuros said in an e-mailed response to questions from Bloomberg News. “Walk has never been involved in CRI research and has no influence on CRI research and educational programs. His part- involvement is teaching six hours per year and a very small part of a course. This involvement ceased in 2006.”
Altria Group Inc spun off Philip Morris International in March, and Walk now works for Altria’s Philip Morris USA unit. Greg Mathe, a spokesman for Altria, had no comment on the study when contacted by Bloomberg News.