The fight against tobacco has undoubtedly picked up momentum over the past few decades and particularly over the past few years. With smoking rates declining steadily and technological advancements allowing nicotine delivery via much safer systems i.e. vaping, it seems as though the tide is turning and the potential of a ‘smoke free world’ is a realistic ambition. However, to believe that tobacco companies will acquiesce to this inevitability is unrealistic and we will likely see such businesses do what they can to hold onto as much and for as long as possible the markets and customers they have established for their primary product set, that of burned tobacco.
The fact that cigarettes kill people and the fact that the companies that sell them have known this for decades, whilst continuing to trade, is no secret and therefore the trust in these companies is, and should be, very low. Many believe in the term ‘you can’t buy trust’ but with billions of dollars to spare, Phillip Morris International (PMI) seems to disagree.
A Smoke-free World
The world’s biggest tobacco company, PMI, is donating a reported $1billion to a foundation built to end the sale of burned tobacco products. This would therefore appear incongruous that PMI would be supporting this foundation’s principal agenda and funding research and strategies to eventually rid the planet of its enormously valuable products.
The campaign is called ‘Foundation for a Smoke-free World’ and is headed by Dr Derek Yach, formerly a Director of World Health Organisation (WHO). Derek Yach has been in close contact with PMI and the pledge was recently announced in a Press Release from the foundation. PMI has committed $80 million a year for twelve years to fund the Foundation for a Smoke-Free World.
According to the Foundation: “Importantly, the grant terms, bylaws, and non-profit status of the Foundation preclude PMI or other tobacco industry representatives from involvement in Foundation governance, or from having any influence over the Foundation’s funding decisions, strategy, or activities.”
“The Foundation will have an independent research agenda, ownership of its data, freedom to publish, and strict protections against conflict of interest.”
Playing Devil’s Advocate, of course it is unreasonable to expect PMI and other tobacco companies to unilaterally stop selling their products. They are allowed to sell their wares in every country in the world, people know the risk and they still smoke, and if governments do not believe the risk justifies a ban on their sale, why would the producers gain a conscience, which is more acute than the governments of the world who are charged with protecting their citizens, indeed sometimes from themselves. Tobacco therefore will be sold until it is banned or there are no customers left. Tobacco companies will continue to sell and support their markets until this potential eventuality.
Tobacco giants are not run by fools. They understand the lack of trust the tobacco industry has, and PMI clearly felt they needed to do something to try and obscure some of the successful commercial habits that have successfully sustained this unprecedentedly dangerous product and attempt to present a different corporate image. We probably also need to stand back a moment and consider what has changed? Smoking rates in the developed world are shrinking faster than any time in history. This decline has accelerated in the past 5 years, undoubtedly from the impact vaping has had on smokers’ numbers. It is reasonable to conclude that if it were not that vaping had been so successful in encroaching into Tobacco companies’ previously ‘bankable’ customer base then likely, the consideration of ‘image’ would be much less relevant than it appears today. Let’s also not forget that PMI is leading the way in alternative tobacco products, specifically, its ‘Heat not Burn’ (HnB) IQOS.
The success of the IQOS will be in part achieved by driving the ‘reduced harm’ agenda and increasing the take up of IQOS and other yet to be released products to stem the outflow of customers from tobacco to vaping and retain for longer a viable tobacco based business model. This strategy also requires for the ‘water to be muddied’ in how vaping and HnB are seen. PMI is aggressively trying to position IQOS as a vaping equivalent product, even though its risk profile is off the scale when compared to vaping products. This is canny from PMI; if it can steal the reduced harm agenda, confuse what the product’s risk and potentials are and create confusion within customers as to the varying risk profiles, then it will have delivered its strategic future, which is to marginally reform its portfolio, whilst retaining its tobacco customers and indeed developing new customers for its HnB products. These products having been confusingly offered as a significant step forward in smoking risk profiles and undermine the only product set that truly holds a smoke free potential, that of vaping.
Back to the donation. Unfortunately, this ‘grand gesture’ does have the potential to pull the wool over the eyes of those who do not look beyond this ‘donation’. A second chance is one thing, but to forgive decades of ambivalence and down-right disregard to public health because of one act can be very dangerous. PMI of course has extraordinary resource; money in particular, but what its missing is the trust of its customers and health activists who know full well the damage these companies inflict and the methods used to sustain this deadly market.
By being allowed to regain even a fraction of trust, PMI would have incredible power. This power in the hands of a company with such a track record could be disastrous; wiping out competition, manipulating regulation and allowing lobbying to create a trading environment that allows and supports endorsements which, rather than hasten tobacco’s demise and the companies that sell these deadly products, actually preserves and sustains both these product groups and the dependent companies. As in most aspects of life, it would be wise to follow actions and not words. The continuing efforts to preserve current markets and products speaks louder than any attempt to suggest that consciences are emerging out of this dark industry.
Some of you may be aware of a film call ‘A Billion Lives’. Indeed, Dr Yach was a contributor to this film that attempted to show the potential of vaping to save a Billion Lives. That Dr Yach believes it is reasonable to conflate the agenda of tobacco businesses and a smoke free agenda is confusing and concerning; it must however be placed in a reflective context. $1,000,000,000 may sound a lot of money, however Dr Yach will be fully aware that this equates to just $1 for every life that he previously thought could be saved by vaping being allowed to naturally bring an end to smoking’s pestilence. Perhaps we also see the rather incidental consideration that PMI place against the lives of its customers. $1 is equivalent to about the retail cost of 2 cigarettes, so perhaps it is just a little more of the same business as usual.