Arvind Hickman
Jun 29, 2020

WHO concerned by Big Tobacco-funded 'aggressive PR effort' during pandemic

The World Health Organization has warned that a “front group” for the tobacco industry and its PR agencies are taking advantage of the coronavirus to fund research on tobacco users.

A frame from 'Derek's Message', a Foundation for a Smoke-Free World video on YouTube
A frame from 'Derek's Message', a Foundation for a Smoke-Free World video on YouTube

The non-profit organisation Foundation for a Smoke-Free World (FSFW), which is funded by tobacco company Philip Morris International (PMI) with an $80 million annual investment, claims it operates independently and funds research into the health risks of cigarettes and alternatives that can help smokers quit or reduce their risk to combustible nicotine products.

Its activities are being monitored by health authorities and a tobacco industry watchdog, STOP, which recently analysed the foundation’s tax return and spending activities.

Dr Vinayak M Prasad, the programme manager that leads WHO’s Tobacco Free Initiative, told PRWeek the global health body has been following the research and PR activities of foundations linked to the tobacco industry during the crisis.

“We are concerned that the tobacco industry and front groups such as the FSFW are taking advantage of the current pandemic,” he said.

“We are seeing foundation[s] funding surveys of tobacco users or funding universities for COVID-19 related research. There is an aggressive PR effort by the foundation and its communication teams around their activities in a number of countries.”

PRWeek approached the FSFW and its PR agency, Ruder Finn, to find out more about their activities.

An FSFW spokesperson said its mission is to “accelerate progress towards ending smoking”.

“Our health, science, and technology agenda explicitly addresses product assessment and development for cessation and harm-reduction innovations,” the spokesperson said.

“We are agnostic to what product category is used and focus rather on how to ensure that the most effective means of ending smoking is safe and readily available. We believe that more research is needed across all of the product categories. Therefore, we are funding research projects that will enhance knowledge in this area.”

Ruder Finn’s involvement

The FSFW said Ruder Finn has led global public relations activities to increase the visibility of its research and raise awareness of the Foundation’s Global State of Smoking poll. This includes programmes such as the Tobacco Transformation Index.

Ruder Finn has also helped the FSFW produce content, including a video message from foundation president Derek Yach (see above).

The foundation also confirmed that Ruder Finn had spearheaded the global efforts to generate awareness of its COVID-19 State of Smoking Poll (see chart below) in May.

Ogilvy had previously supported the FSFW's programme across digital and social media platforms, until severing ties in mid-2019.

A Ruder Finn spokesperson told PRWeek it assists with “communications strategy around their mission to end smoking in this generation, particularly in the world’s lower- and middle-income geographies where this issue is most dire”.

The agency wouldn’t reveal who works on the account, but PRWeek understands one member of the account team is a senior vice-president who has worked with other pharma and healthcare clients. Ruder Finn said its UK and EMEA offices are not involved with the client.

The FSFW's 2019 US tax filing reveals it spent $5.1m on public relations agencies. This includes $2.1m to Ruder Finn, $1.2m to Ogilvy’s PR business and $1.1m to APCO Worldwide subsidiary MarketKonnect – a digital services platform.

The same filings reveal the foundation was solely funded by PMI with an $80m investment in 2019, and a $1bn multi-year commitment.

About half of its budget ($41.1m) is spent on ‘grants and contributions’, with the lion's share ($28.4m) going towards ‘health, science and technology’ projects, and the rest split between grants to help farmers in developing countries find alternatives to tobacco crops ($7m), and ‘industry transformation’ projects ($5.4m).

Science vs PR

A global tobacco industry watchdog – Stopping Tobacco Organizations & Products (STOP) – analysed FSFW’s 2019 spending.

It claims the foundation is more interested in PR activity to position PMI's 'smoke-free world' positioning and helping smokers move to next-generation nicotine products, rather than scientific research.

This includes 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.

It said that two of the biggest recipients of foundation grants are the Center of Excellence for the Acceleration of Harm Reduction at the University of Catania, Italy, and the Rose Research Center – organisations that have a long history of working with PMI, including research on its new heated tobacco and vape products, IQOS.

“They’ve got a lot of spin they need putting out there and they’ve got a large organisation (Ruder Finn) to help them do that,” said Philip Chamberlain, a managing editor for Tobacco Tactics, which is run by the Tobacco Control Research Group at the University of Bath.

“The fact that they’ve increased the main PR contract fourfold suggests how serious they are taking this job of selling the story rather than funding any particular science or research.”

Chamberlain said FSFW activities are about trying to get Philip Morris “back at the table” in key markets as smokers transition away from combustible tobacco products to alternatives like heated tobacco, vapes and other forms of e-cigarettes.

“It’s a very tried-and-tested industry playbook to set up organisations (like the foundation) to be able to speak on behalf of the industry and Ruder Finn has been part of that process in the past (when it worked with tobacco clients),” Chamberlain added. “Fundamentally, it’s solely a creature of Philip Morris, despite what it may say about its terms of operation. It’s got one funder and that piper really plays the tune.”

An FSFW spokesperson told PRWeek that although it is solely funded by PMI, it “may seek funding from other sources as well, but we have not started this process yet”.

They also said the foundation operates independently from the tobacco giant and that it awards grants to “a number of world-renowned researchers who are spearheading innovative smoking-cessation and harm-reduction projects”.


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