Tobacco industry interference in public health policies is not new but has, over the past few years, significantly intensified in Mexico. To document the scale and scope of the industry’s tactics, Ethos Public Lab, a Union grantee, spent a year conducting five comprehensive investigations—on new tobacco products, COVID-19, taxes, smoke-free spaces, and civil society pro vaping groups. While findings across all five areas are important, the report on pro vaping groups—“The Hidden Links Between the Tobacco Industry and Pro-Vaping Advocates in Mexico”—is groundbreaking, exposing for the very first time, that the tobacco industry is financing pro vaping groups in Mexico and other countries around the world.
In “The Hidden Links”, Ethos conducts a much-needed deep dive into two specific organizations, Pro-Vapeo Mexico and Mexico y el Mundo Vapeando, which are the country’s best known and most outspoken vaping advocates. Both organizations profess to have no conflicts of interest and insist that they have never been financed by the tobacco industry. The truth, as the Ethos investigation reveals, is quite different: Pro-Vapeo Mexico is a member of the International Network of Nicotine Consumer Organizations (INNCO). Based in Switzerland, INNCO, has been funded by the Foundation for a Smoke-Free World, which is, of course, completely funded by tobacco giant Philip Morris International (PMI). Ethos also found that Mexico y el Mundo Vapeando received funding from donations provided by the national vaping industry and small nicotine retailers, who have a vested—and conflicted—interest in novel product profitability.
Research was conducted by investigative journalists who were able to uncover material and interview sources that are typically inaccessible to traditional tobacco control groups. As a result, the investigation garnered headlines among highly influential media outlets, was discussed during an influential radio show called “the nicotine lobbying,” and even resulted in a Washington Post op-ed. A video with English subtitles documents the extent to which these vaping groups are dependent on and survive because of industry money.
“The Hidden Links” and the other four reports were produced and published in various Mexican media outlets and are now included in the evidence-based report, “Transparency and Accountability Mechanisms in the Design and Implementation of Tobacco Control Public Policies: A Government Approach.” Presented to government stakeholders and policy makers on 24 March, the report also includes best practices and provides specific policy recommendations to strengthen the Framework Convention on Tobacco Control’s (FCTC) Article 5.3. As “Transparency and Accountability Mechanisms” documents, the tobacco industry’s diverse tactics—corporate social responsibility, intimidation, creating alliances, lobbying, information collection, philanthropy, public relations and funding research, among others—are carefully applied to specific targets. In this way, the industry manipulates multiple levers to influence legislative, regulatory, and legal processes, as well as public opinion. Equally important, the report provides recommendations to address each tactic; these were created following intensive interviews and two round tables with tobacco control experts familiar with the Mexican and Latin American political context.
“The report and policy recommendations could not come at a more critical moment,” said Jorge Cardenas, The Union’s tobacco control adviser for Latin America. “Mexico is at a crossroads and is currently engaging in a nationwide debate around tobacco control policies.”
“It’s important to highlight the industry’s use of front groups to derail life-saving tobacco control efforts” added Gustavo Sóñora, The Union´s tobacco control Regional Director.
Guided by literature from the World Health Organization, the report uses the Mexican context and classifies industry tactics, breaking them into three disparate groups to characterize their social, political and economic dynamics. The groups include 1) Regulatory capture or actions that directly influence decision making when advocating for public health, 2) Public opinion or tactics to create doubt about information on tobacco control policies, and 3) Confrontation or direct attacks.