The World Health Organization (WHO) has launched a report in Geneva that accuses the tobacco transnationals of having sabotaged its anti-tobacco efforts in the past decades, not just through WHO but also through other UN organs.

by Someshwar Singh

Geneva,2 Aug 2000 --  The World Health Organization (WHO) launched a report here Wednesday that accuses the tobacco transnationals of having sabotaged its anti-tobacco efforts in the past decades, not just through WHO but other UN organs like the Rome-based Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), the UN Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC), and the World Bank.

Governments too, particularly from the developing world, are said to have been influenced, according to the report, “Tobacco company strategies to undermine tobacco control activities at the WHO.” The international committee of experts that prepared the report for the WHO was led by Prof Thomas Zeltner, Director of the Swiss Federal Office of Public Health.

The WHO received the expert committee report on 28th July and has now also posted it on its website,in launching the 246-page report.

Coming two months before the WHO is to begin “public hearings” against the tobacco companies to make the case for a strong Framework Tobacco Convention, a WHO official said the report brings out a lot of details that the tobacco industry is challenged to counter. “It is part of the cleansing process. Let them accept the challenge and come out in the open on the charges being made.”

But the fight with the tobacco TNCs promises to be a real challenge, as their infiltration over the past decades has not just been in the WHO and other UN institutions but allegedly also in the media, among NGOs, “independent” organizations, consultants, and a host of supposedly dedicated scientists, the experts say.

Above all, the WHO expects to fight the tobacco TNCs from funds that donor governments provide. If the recommendations of the expert committee are to be implemented in earnest, fresh injection of funds would appear necessary. Unless they come from donor governments without slashing funding for other priority health areas (a charge already catalogued by the tobacco TNCs), a few million dollars of the WHO tobacco-free initiative will appear to be a pittance against the billion-dollar might of the tobacco TNCs.

In the course of their inquiry, based principally on documents in courts in lawsuits against the tobacco industry in the United States, the committee of experts has identified many reasons for concern about the integrity of the process for international decision-making about tobacco. “The attempted subversion has been elaborate, well financed, sophisticated and usually invisible. That tobacco companies resist proposals for tobacco control comes as no surprise, but what is now visible is the scale, intensity and, importantly, the tactics, of their campaigns.”

“This inquiry adds to the mounting evidence that it is also a struggle against an active, organized and calculating industry. This has implications for WHO and other international bodies, both in terms of program activities and internal procedures,” the committee observed.

When asked why WHO appeared not to be questioning its links with other TNCs like Rio Tinto and Nestle when there were serious public health concerns raised in their case as well, WHO’s Executive Director, Dr David Nabarro said, “the WHO has encouraged a range of partnerships.  But only when we are convinced that we are all committed to better public health.” Saying that the journalist had made a judgement on those companies, and that it was not “appropriate” to respond to such accusations here, Dr Nabarro said the tobacco industry was unique in the sense that it was the only industry that actually  killed half of its users.

The report suggests further investigations on a number of fronts, including more deliberations on this issue at future sessions of the World Health Assembly. In its recommendations, it says WHO should urge member states to conduct their own investigations of possible tobacco company influence on national decisions and policies, and to publish reports on their findings.

WHO should seek to provide or identify external sources of funding for such investigations on behalf of member states unable to fund them, says the report. It also questions whether current procedures for recognizing organizations as NGOs (Non-Governmental Organizations) include adequate mechanisms to make transparent any affiliations between an NGO and tobacco companies.

The report says it identified a calculated tobacco company strategy of using food companies and other non-tobacco subsidiaries to initiate or support partnerships with international organizations on causes unrelated to tobacco. “Tobacco companies perceive these partnerships as effective vehicles for developing high-level relationships within international organizations, re-directing priorities away from tobacco, and cultivating influence to defeat tobacco initiatives. Many of these strategies have involved causes important to WHO, from fighting cholera to promoting childhood immunization. These tobacco company initiatives can be alluring, particularly when they offer the prospect of large financial contributions.”

Aware of possible baits being offered by the tobacco TNCs to WHO programmes themselves, the committee observes that there could be offers of significant funding to help WHO achieve urgent non-tobacco priorities—offers which may be very attractive to those within WHO responsible for these priorities. “Rather than wait until it is presented with such an offer, WHO should develop a policy with regard to the appropriateness of accepting contributions from, or entering partnerships with, tobacco companies and their affiliates, so that these decisions can be made thoughtfully and without the urgency of an immediate offer to fill a pressing financial need.”

To achieve a global consensus on tobacco control, the report says WHO must do more to counter the tactics tobacco companies have used to reach out to developing countries. In particular, companies have successfully cultivated or exploited fear that tobacco control initiatives will cause economic dislocation in tobacco-growing regions, as well as fear that increased attention to tobacco control will come at the price of reduced attention to communicable diseases, malnutrition, and other urgent health problems.

The committee of experts suggests two steps to address these concerns.  First, WHO should seek to help developing countries diminish their reliance on tobacco growing in a manner that respects the economic realities faced by these countries. Second, WHO should take affirmative steps to counter any false impression that it has reduced its commitment to other urgent health priorities of special concern in developing countries, including issues of nutrition, sanitation, immunization and communicable diseases.

The committee encourages WHO to make concerted, affirmative efforts to communicate the scale and importance of its programs in these areas, both to demonstrate to developing countries its continuing commitment to meeting their special needs, and to reassure them that the world does not face an 'either or' choice between these priorities.

The report notes that lawsuits in the US have had some success in obtaining various remedies, including monetary compensation and changes in marketing practices. The US litigation has also forced the disclosure of millions of documents of some tobacco companies— including the documents described in this report - exposing aspects of past company behaviour.

It says other countries are now expressing interest in the possibility of seeking restitution or other redress from tobacco companies. Some countries are examining this possibility; others have actually commenced litigation. Many countries, however, especially in the developing world, which has been a special target of tobacco companies, may lack the financial or technical resources to assess whether there is a factual and legal basis for seeking restitution or other remedies.

In this regard, the experts believe that WHO should provide member states with technical assistance and consultation in evaluating the legal options available to them.

Some tobacco companies have recently made representations in the US that they have discontinued the types of conduct revealed by past documents. It is critical, says the report, to determine whether these representations are true, and whether any changes in behaviour extend to the companies’ conduct in countries other than the US.

Further, this report has described only activities revealed by documents of those corporations that were forced by US litigation to open their records: the files of many of the world’s tobacco companies remain sealed. Continued monitoring is needed to determine whether other companies are engaged in conduct similar to that described here.  The committee of experts believes this need is greatest in developing countries.

While this inquiry was not exhaustive, it has demonstrated beyond doubt the magnitude of tobacco companies’ continuing opposition to WHO tobacco programs, the report says in conclusion. “The tobacco companies’ long-secret documents offer a window of insight not only into many of their surreptitious activities, but also into the strategies and attitudes that guide their conduct.”

But the significance of this inquiry may lie less in what it reveals about the past, than in what it suggests for the present and future, says the report. “As WHO embarks on a global discussion of tobacco and health, and of the proposed Framework Convention on Tobacco Control, this inquiry invites a reassessment of the way WHO and its member states view the global epidemic of tobacco use.”

At the most fundamental level, this inquiry confirms that tobacco use is unlike other threats to global health, the report says. “Infectious diseases do not employ multinational public relations firms. There are no front groups to promote the spread of cholera. Mosquitoes have no lobbyists.”

Calling tobacco as a case unto itself, and that reversing its burden on global health will be not only about understanding addiction and curing disease, but, just as importantly, about overcoming a determined and powerful industry, the report clearly brings out the gravity of taking on the TNCs.

What the tobacco industry will have to say and how it will fight back, only time will tell.-SUNS4721

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