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STOP finds Big Tobacco front group still spending millions on spin, not science

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The Foundation for a Smoke-Free World’s 2019 tax return provides further evidence that it operates primarily as a publicity function of tobacco giant Philip Morris International.

Initial analysis of the Foundation for a Smoke-Free World (FSFW)’s 2019 tax return by STOP, the global tobacco industry watchdog of which The Union is a partner, provides further evidence that it operates primarily as a publicity function of tobacco giant Philip Morris International (PMI).

FSFW claims to be an “independent, non-profit organisation committed to reducing deaths and diseases caused by smoking.” The 2019 tax return revealed that, more than two years after saying it wanted to secure other funders, the world’s biggest tobacco industry front group remains solely funded by PMI.

PMI is one of the world’s largest transnational tobacco companies. In 2019 it shipped over 700 billion cigarettes worldwide, with a net revenue of US$ 78 billion. Despite the Foundation claiming it is a scientific organisation, almost a third (31 percent, US$ 24.52 million) of its US$ 80 million budget in 2019 was spent on salaries, public relations, legal and other fees. Only about half (US$ 41.09 million) went on grants, according to the initial analysis of the tax return by the Tobacco Control Research Group (TCRG) at the University of Bath, a partner in STOP.

TCRG has found that many grants fund what looks more like public relations and advocacy than scientific research. These include funding VIDA news to “increase public awareness of the drivers of smoking harm and the availability of alternatives;” the International Network of Nicotine Consumer Organisations (INNCO) to “promote tobacco harm reduction on the global stage” and the Conrad Foundation to hold children’s science competitions.

Despite spending millions of dollars on Ogilvy and Ruder Finn, two marketing companies with historical links to the tobacco industry, the Foundation appears to be struggling to achieve legitimacy or to build credible links with academic institutions. Fewer than one in six (seven out of 45) of the Foundation’s grant recipients are based at an academic institution.

The fact it spent 11 times more on recruitment consultants in 2019 than in 2018 (US$ 852,017 versus US$ 74,216), adds to findings that it is struggling to recruit and retain key personnel. Of the key staff listed in 2019, it has since lost its chief operating officer, two board members, and two of its highest-paid employees (Vice President of Global Operations and Vice President of Marketing and Communications). This makes a total loss of ten key staff members since the Foundation was launched.

“We cannot leave it to Big Tobacco to find solutions to the epidemic they themselves have created,” said Dr Gan Quan, Director of Tobacco Control at The Union.

“This analysis provides further evidence that the Foundation’s primary purpose is to improve PMI’s public image and credibility, rather than to actually reduce smoking. We must continue to hold Big Tobacco to account, and not allow them to distract us from implementing tobacco control policies that we know are effective.”

STOP is a global tobacco industry watchdog, funded by Bloomberg Philanthropies, whose mission is to expose the tobacco industry strategies and tactics that undermine public health. STOP is a partnership between The Tobacco Control Research Group at the University of Bath, The Global Center for Good Governance in Tobacco ControlThe Union and Vital Strategies.

The full analysis of the tax return is available to download from the STOP website.