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Union letter to U.S. Ambassador in Vietnam questions Embassy’s role in meetings between Philip Morris International and Vietnam government ministers

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The Union joined international calls for the U.S. Ambassador in Vietnam to reconsider facilitation of meetings between Vietnam’s government and Philip Morris International (PMI) as part of a delegation organised by the US-ASEAN Business Council.

The Union joined international calls for the U.S. Ambassador in Vietnam to reconsider the Embassy’s facilitation of meetings between senior members of Vietnam’s government and Philip Morris International (PMI) as part of a delegation of U.S. companies organised by the US-ASEAN Business Council.

The letter from The Union’s executive director José Luis Castro expressed concern that the U.S. tobacco company PMI was using the business delegation’s visit to Hanoi earlier this month to lobby against tobacco control funding and health programmes in Vietnam.

We understand that the tobacco company will use its position to raise fear over illicit trade and seek diversion of critical health funds away from health programs and towards anti-smuggling measures,” said José Luis Castro, in his letter to Ted Osius, U.S. Ambassador to Vietnam. “Philip Morris’s plan to see health funds diverted from Vietnam’s Tobacco Control Fund will without doubt seriously harm and undermine Vietnam’s efforts to reduce tobacco use, save lives and protect children.”

“Vietnam is one of the world’s pioneers of sustainable funding for tobacco control. Its tobacco control fund was established to help reduce the high prevalence of tobacco use that causes 66,000 deaths every year.  As tobacco products are both lethal and addictive, they are unlike any other commercial product,” said Anne Jones, The Union’s technical advisor for tobacco control in Vietnam. “Because Vietnam has sustainable funding for tobacco control the tobacco industry has been working aggressively to undermine Vietnam’s progress in this vital area. Using Ambassadors to open doors is part of the tobacco industry's global strategy to systematically oppose any increases in tobacco taxes to keep prices as low as possible to attract new customers who are mostly children.”

Along with other global health groups, The Union raised concerns that providing PMI with an opportunity to lobby government is in conflict with Vietnam’s ratification of the World Health Organization’s Framework Convention on Tobacco Control as well as U.S. foreign policies to curtail tobacco production, sales and use.

Despite the concerns formally raised by The Union and other international health organisations, these meetings did go ahead in Hanoi earlier this month. Stuart Schaag, Commercial Counsellor for the U.S. Commercial Service responded to The Union’s letter, having coordinated Embassy attendance at the US-ASEAN Business Council.

“Staff from the U.S. Embassy in Vietnam attend these meetings with government ministries as observers and note takers, to better understand the obstacles that U.S. companies encounter when doing business in Vietnam,” Schaag’s letter dated 9 March 2017 states. “Because the presence of Embassy personnel is informal, I do not believe that our attendance in these meetings could be construed by the Vietnamese Government as tacit support or advocacy on behalf of Philip Morris or any other of the thirty companies that are in Vietnam this week.” 

The U.S. Commercial Service is the trade promotion arm of the U.S. Department of Commerce's International Trade Administration. Its mission is to help U.S. companies get started in exporting or increase sales to global markets. It is represented in more than 75 countries.

The Union has been working to support tobacco control in Vietnam for the last ten years, providing technical assistance for development and implementation of policies proven to reduce tobacco use and save lives. Vietnam has one of the highest burdens of tobacco use globally and is a priority country for the Bloomberg Initiative to Reduce Tobacco Use.