Exclusive: Philip Morris Funded Anti-Smoking Foundation Targeting Public Health Leaders With Grants

Leaked emails reveal that the foundation is actively making offers of grants to officials at the WHO as well as people in India and abroad without explicitly revealing its single source of funding – Philip Morris International.

Philip Morris International's operational headquarters. Credit: Reuters/Denis Balibouse/File Photo

Philip Morris International’s operational headquarters. Credit: Reuters/Denis Balibouse/File Photo

New Delhi: A leaked email from an anti-smoking foundation funded by tobacco major Philip Morris International has revealed that the foundation is targeting prominent figures in global health and encouraging them to apply for grants for projects that can “reduce deaths from smoking.”

The Wire has secured a copy of this email which was sent by Derek Yach, president of the Foundation for a Smoke-Free World, on December 9. It invites 344 individuals and institutions to apply for grants from a corpus of nearly US$1 billion, all of which came from Philip Morris International.

The email contains the lengthy contact-list of the foundation’s president who himself is a former employee of the World Health Organization (WHO). In it, he personally encourages known figures in public health around the world to apply for Philip Morris International’s funding.

The recipients of his mail include three employees at Philip Morris International as well as three senior officials of the WHO, one of who works in the Director General’s office. The invite has been sent to people at the Centre for Disease Control, United Nations Development Programme, Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS, World Bank, Pan American Health Forum and the World Economic Forum. Nearly a hundred academics at top universities across the US and Europe have also received the email. A few prominent Indians also feature on the list.

WHO has asked the global community not to partner with the foundation

When the organisation was set up this year, it quickly came under strong criticism – including from the WHO – for the same. “WHO will not partner with the foundation. Governments should not partner with the foundation and the public health community should follow this lead,” said the WHO in September. Another release from the organisation also warned parties to the Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (FCTC) that any collaboration with this foundation would constitute a breach of FCTC due to its “tobacco industry interference.”

To this, Yach put out a press release saying that his foundation had “fully insulated itself from the influence of the tobacco industry” and asked WHO twice to consider removing the press releases from their website.

Derek Yach. Credit: Twitter

Derek Yach. Credit: Twitter

Yach is well known in public health circles, not least because he himself was part of the WHO Secretariat during negotiations for the FCTC. The WHO’s press release in September, in fact, began by first distancing Yach from the FCTC saying that he “is in no way linked to the Convention Secretariat.” After his time at the WHO, he went on to work at PepsiCo and is now the founder and president-designate of Foundation for a Smoke-Free World.

In a reply to The Wire’s query, Yach said: “The email was part of an effort to be as inclusive as possible when recruiting for letters of intent for early scoping grants that will help shape our global research priorities.” Yach’s media representative said the email was “one of many methods of outreach to the global community.” Some recipients of the email suggested it may have been sent out to an already existing list-serve but Yach’s reply has not stated that.

Who is on Yach’s mailing list? 

Although Yach has claimed that his foundation is “insulated” from the tobacco industry, his email suggests he is, in fact, in contact with the tobacco patrons of his foundation. His email with the subject ‘Call for Letters of Intent Ends December 11,’ has also gone to three employees at Philip Morris: Boris Manchev, Helena Ferreira and Heloisa Glad. The three have not responded to The Wire‘s queries on the same.

Apart from this, the email has also been sent to three officials at the WHO, including Ian Smith who works in the office of the new Director General, Dr Tedros. The others at WHO are Douglas Bettcher who himself is the director of the WHO’s Tobacco Free Initiative, and Tim Evans. Yach’s message has been sent to them despite the WHO’s public denouncement of this foundation and its founder in September. The Wire has not received a reply to emails sent to these officials either.

A Reuters investigation earlier this year showed that Philip Morris International’s employees had been actively lobbying with health ministry officials around the world, including at the FCTC which India hosted last November.

In terms of people who work closely on and comment on Indian policy, the email has been sent to K. Srinath Reddy (president of the Public Health Foundation of India), Indra Nooyi (chairperson of PepsiCo) and Sarita Nayyar (chief operating officer of the World Economic Forum).

Only Reddy replied to The Wire’s queries on this saying: “PHFI will not have anything to do with this. We will not apply for the grant given by this foundation. The avowed objectives of this foundation are illusory.” He said he has not replied to any of Yach’s emails which are being sent to “gain allies. I certainly will not be a supporter. I have already communicated my criticism to Richard Horton and to World Heart Federation’s leadership who were also approached by Derek. I will write to him to remove my name from the mailing list.”

“Thank you for your continued support,” says Yach

Yach’s email is addressed: “Dear Colleagues,” and was sent from his own email account. He invited the 344 addressees to submit their letters of intent for the foundation’s “early scoping grants.” He says the projects will ensure “effective and innovative approaches to reduce health impacts and deaths from smoking.” The email went out just two days before the application for this grant closed on December 11 and says that the foundation has received “numerous submissions and collective input.”

“Please encourage your network to contribute as well,” says his email, which he ends with thanking everyone for their “continued support.”

Some find it strange that Yach revealed his contact-list in this email. “Some might start to wonder who on the list are actual supporters. It may aim to create a climate of suspicion and divide in the tobacco control community,” says Franklin Apfel, former head of communications for WHO Regional Office for Europe from 1995 to 2002. Apfel was not on Yach’s mailing list but has been involved in tobacco control including in the ‘Tobacco Kills-Don’t be Duped’ project. Perhaps the open mailing list was to show that “there is nothing to be ashamed of here,” says Apfel.

Yach’s mail has also been sent to critics, including Michael Siegel, a professor at Boston University. Earlier this month, Siegel wrote a blog post calling this very invite to apply for grants a “scam.”

In a reply to The Wire, Siegel confirmed that he had received the email and reiterated that he would not apply for these grants: “I won’t play any part in helping a major international tobacco corporation with its public relations. I think they can do that on their own,” says Siegel. If Philip Morris International was truly interested in a ‘smoke-free world,’ as the foundation’s name suggests, Siegel says they would need to do much more including “curtailing its aggressive marketing, stop opposing tobacco control policies and fund aggressive anti-smoking campaigns.”

Read: Public Health Leaders Ask to Be Removed From Mailing List of Foundation Offering Them Tobacco-Funded Grants