The Foundation for a Smoke-Free World (FSFW) has ended its relationship with Philip Morris International (PMI), bringing to a close one of the tobacco company’s many efforts to distance itself from its own best-selling products.
In many ways it is unfortunate that the FSFW experiment failed. It could have provided a major source of funding for research into tobacco-related areas.
But the foundation has been dogged by issues of perception since its inception, and those involved have admitted in private that it has struggled at times to even give away money in the form of grants, such is the fear of being perceived as under the influence of Big Tobacco in tobacco research circles.
Researchers are so afraid of being tarred by the Big Tobacco brush that they refuse to even talk to an organisation one degree away, and that in itself is an unfortunate indictment of the current fractious state of tobacco research. But then, that is what decades of duplicity in studies on the health effects of smoking will earn you.
It remains to be seen whether this new severance will influence minds. It seems that some of the more strident prohibitionist advocates (such as the Bloomberg Foundation) have already reacted negatively, rejecting the separation as a continued smokescreen that does little to redeem the FSFW in their eyes.
Certainly some will believe Big Tobacco is still involved in funding as long as the FSFW is still working through the last tranche of the $140m it received from PMI as a piece of the parting agreement.
Is Big Tobacco capable of change?
For PMI, meanwhile, the move indicates that it has reluctantly agreed that its attempts to fund further work in tobacco research – likely for the purposes of proving its new products are indeed less harmful and regardless of where its motivation for funding such projects truly came from – are well and truly defunct.
Perceptions of Big Tobacco companies are just too entrenched for industry research funding to be much of a model. And moves to change these perceptions through such efforts will more than likely continue to backfire, as they are only reminders of previous actions taken by tobacco companies to obscure or counter studies on the harms of smoking.
It leaves the bigger question unanswered: how, or indeed can, Big Tobacco reform its image? Tobacco companies want to frame themselves as providers of products for adults that come with some risks, though not really any more than other products also available for adult use, including alcohol, and legal gambling and recreational cannabis.
But a key difference remains. None of the other industries sell products quite as dangerous as cigarettes. And all the talk in the world amounts to nothing as long as tobacco companies choose to continue doing so.
This difference was recently highlighted again by PMI. The company’s senior vice president of external affairs claimed in an email seen by UK press that PMI could be “undoubtedly the most helpful private partner WHO [World Health Organization] could have in the fight against smoking”. It’s a particularly egregious piece of rhetoric given that smoking is a problem created by the commercial sale of conventional cigarettes.
Of course, PMI could actually become “the most helpful private partner” by simply choosing to stop selling cigarettes tomorrow. But it won’t. And that is why all its attempts to rehabilitate its image will continue to fail.
– Freddie Dawson ECigIntelligence staff
Photo: Manfred Antranias Zimmer