Contact l Sitemap

home industries issues reasearch weblog press

Home  » Industries » Tobacco

World: Cigarette Firms Tried to Foil WHO, Say Investigators

by Gordon FaircloughWall Street Journal
August 1st, 2000

World Health Organization investigators say Philip Morris Cos. and other multinational cigarette makers worked for years to discredit the agency and thwart its efforts to curb smoking around the globe.

The Geneva-based public-health arm of the United Nations is expected to make the investigators' findings public Wednesday as it moves to strengthen its hand ahead of the October start of formal negotiations for an international tobacco-control treaty.

Tobacco Tactics

WHO says big tobacco companies tried to undermine the agency.

This organization has extraordinary influence on government and consumers and we must find a way to diffuse this and reorient their activities to their prescribed mandate. In addition, we need to think through how we could use our food companies, size, technology, and capability with governments by helping them with their food problems and give us a more balanced profile with the government than we now have against WHO's powerful influence.

-- Excerpt from a memo by Geoffrey C. Bible, now chairman of Philip Morris, about the company's 'Boca Raton Action Plan.'

A portion of a draft of the WHO report charges that tobacco companies engaged in a "systematic effort," dating back decades, "to undermine and subvert WHO's tobacco-control efforts." The report's authors also say that cigarette makers tried to "distort the results of important scientific studies on tobacco" and get the WHO's budget reduced.

'The Scale and the Intensity'

"What is clear now is the scale and the intensity of the tactics of the industry's campaign" to undercut the WHO, said Thomas Zeltner, director general of the Swiss Office of Public Health and chairman of the committee that conducted the investigation. In an interview, Dr. Zeltner also said the tobacco companies had "compromised the integrity of the decision-making process" inside the organization.

One of the elements of the tobacco companies' broad-based efforts, according to the partial draft, was the "Boca Raton Action Plan" devised by top Philip Morris executives, including Geoffrey C. Bible, who is now the company's chairman and chief executive officer, at a conference in Florida in the late 1980s.

In a December 1988 memo stamped "confidential," Mr. Bible, at the time president of the company's international tobacco operations, outlined the topics discussed at the Florida meeting and wrote that the WHO has "extraordinary influence on government and consumers" and that the company "must find a way to diffuse this and reorient their activities to their prescribed mandate."

'Powerful Influence'

Mr. Bible also wrote that leaders of the company, which owns Kraft Foods and other food businesses around the world, "need to think through how we could use our food companies" to help governments "with their food problems and give us a more balanced profile with the government than we now have against WHO's powerful influence."

In subsequent progress reports, Philip Morris executives wrote that the company "will not be successful unless our strategy also attacks the issues/programmes" of the WHO. One memo recommended identifying countries targeted by WHO antismoking efforts "and, where it makes sense from a market standpoint, allocate the resources necessary to stop them in their tracks."

The memos outline various ways Philip Morris could try to restrict funding for the WHO. One noted that the WHO receives significant amounts of outside money and that "there are a variety of avenues which should be explored with respect to containing funding from private sources." Another memo suggested lobbying governments "to challenge the use of international funds by the WHO on health-advocacy programmes."

David Davies, vice president for the European Union operations of Philip Morris's international tobacco business, said in a statement, "Some company documents that refer to WHO, going back many decades, do not reflect an approach that today we would adopt with WHO." He added, "They are the product of a polarized and unproductive environment in which few solutions were sought and conflict prevailed over consensus. Philip Morris regrets this."

The company also said that "inferences of improper influence" over the WHO "are not accurate," and that no WHO initiatives were "prevented or obstructed" by Philip Morris.

The WHO report discusses events that occurred through the early 1990s and mentions other major tobacco companies in addition to Philip Morris. The report's authors relied heavily on the reams of internal tobacco-company documents unearthed as a result of lawsuits filed against the industry by U.S. states. Dr. Zeltner said researchers were handicapped by the fact that cigarette makers' actions toward the WHO weren't a focus of the state litigation. "We only have a limited view of what really happened," Dr. Zeltner said.

Pesticide Evaluation

The WHO report also says a number of people with links to tobacco companies were involved in WHO decision-making on tobacco-related matters, unbeknownst to the organization. In one instance, a Spanish scientific consultant worked as an adviser to the WHO evaluating pesticides used on tobacco plants while at the same time receiving funding from the industry. Others with links to cigarette manufacturers were involved in shaping WHO strategy as well as the organization's interpretation of scientific research, Dr. Zeltner said.

The draft report goes on to say that the "tobacco industry apparently was instrumental" in the formation of the International Tobacco Growers Association as a "front" for its own lobbying activities. "For all industries, tobacco included, it's part of their business to lobby and influence organizations that are limiting their activities," said Dr. Zeltner. "But I think in some areas there is no doubt they crossed the line."

The WHO's director general, Gro Harlem Brundtland, has made tobacco control a top priority. She is pushing for a strict new global treaty that could impose tough limits on tobacco advertising and marketing and contain provisions covering taxation, smuggling, and crop substitution for tobacco-dependent economies.

Formal negotiations on the treaty, known as the Framework Convention on Tobacco Control, are set to begin in mid-October. Before they start, the WHO will conduct two days of public hearings in Geneva. That will be the tobacco industry's first chance to present its case to the treaty framers.

This site contains copyrighted material the use of which has not always been specifically authorized by the copyright owner. We are making such material available in our efforts to advance understanding of environmental, political, human rights, economic, democracy, scientific, and social justice issues, etc. We believe this constitutes a 'fair use' of any such copyrighted material as provided for in section 107 of the US Copyright Law. In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, the material on this site is distributed without profit to those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving the included information for research and educational purposes. For more information go to: If you wish to use copyrighted material from this site for purposes of your own that go beyond 'fair use', you must obtain permission from the copyright owner.