No guesses as to the big story of the moment – the announcement that PMI are funding a Foundation for a Smoke-Free World to the tune of $80 million annually over the next twelve years. The interim president is Dr Derek Yach, former WHO director for noncommunicable diseases and mental health where he led the development of the Framework Convention on Tobacco Control. Eyebrows have shot skywards at this appointment leading to inevitable claims that Dr Yach has been won over to the Dark Side.
The $80 million question is of course, independence. On its website, the organisation states “as established in the Foundation’s bylaws, PMI and the tobacco industry are precluded from having any influence over how the Foundation spends its funds or focuses its activities”
And from this flow issues of probity, transparency, governance, inclusion, research provenance and credibility, too numerous to list at the moment, but also, one asks - what is in this for PM!? It could just be a ‘get out of jail free’ card whereby the company continues to produce unethical products but bats away (no pun intended!) criticism by pointing to its new tangible investment in smoking cessation and harm reduction. But the track record of the industry is so appalling, that I’m sure PMI are not naïve enough to imagine that such an obvious ploy would satisfy anybody other than the most ill-informed. Could it just be a vehicle to promote its own products through arms-length funding of independent research? But why would PMI need an NGO to do that when it has plenty of global marketing muscle to achieve the same ends? (No, I didn’t mean that one either).
There are roughly similar examples from other fields. In the UK, the drinks industry established the Portman Group, to monitor standards and codes of practice around industry conduct such as sponsorship and also communicate health information – essentially to be the lobbying and forward-facing arm of Big Booze. But it was regarded as too close to the industry to be a credible public face on health matters about drinking, so the industry established the Drinkaware Trust which calls itself independent, but again relies on the industry to survive. None of which is to imply that these organisations don’t engage in good work, but they will never shake off the reality that he who pays the piper ultimately calls the tune.
And so it is likely that, even if the work of the Foundation was blessed by the Pope, it will not be seen by the tobacco control community as anything other than a cynical ploy to deflect attention away from the main order of business. But if the financial clout of PMI can be deployed in moving people away from smoking whether they quit or switch, then it would be wrong to rush to judgement. As it says in the Bible, “By their fruit you will recognise them”.
Clive Bates highlighted a piece by environmental economist Ted Nordhaus in which he takes Friends of the Earth to task for campaigning against a new meat substitute product that people actually appear to accept, on the grounds that the protein has been genetically modified. The burgers are produced by Silicon-Valley based company Impossible Foods and the protein which gives their product its beef-like quality is called heme, currently neither approved nor banned by the FDA.
Nordhaus attacks what he sees generally as an unrealistic utopian view of environmental issues by some of the more messianic campaigners who ignore the realities of the world – in this case the fact that dramatically rising levels of global beef consumption have an equally dramatically effect on the environment. Now there is a product that chefs are introducing onto their menus that give you the flavour and texture without the external damage and presumably could be healthier anyway because of the absence or reduction of fat.
He says that the targets of utopian environmentalists vary, “ but the tactics are the same: identify speculative or infinitesimally small health or environmental risks, exaggerate those risks wildly in the media, ignore or downplay trade-offs and the far greater and more prosaic risks associated with present day production, cherry pick small scale examples of alternative production systems and massively extrapolate them to the state, regional, national, or global level, to claim that no trade-offs exist and that an environmental free lunch is not only possible but imminent, if only we all would throw off the yoke of nefarious corporate interests that are determined to poison us for profit”. Sound familiar?
Nordhaus is Director of an environmental NGO, the Breakthrough Institute, so these days you immediately check out who is funding it - could it be Big Nuclear Meat Oil Inc? There is a long list of foundations and individual donors. I couldn’t be bothered to check all these out, but did click onto one, The Nathan Cummings Foundation which has this quote from Samuel Johnson on its home page - Nothing will ever be attempted if all possible objections must first be overcome”. I’ll go with that.
The recent US Surgeon-General’s report on e-cigarettes and youth has been heavily criticised in a commentary published in the Harm Reduction Journal. The authors describe the report as ‘more based on fiction than fact’ and highlight that “most of the evidence presented in the Surgeon General’s discussion of nicotine harm is not applicable to e-cigarette use, because it relies almost exclusively on exposure to nicotine in cigarette smoke and not to nicotine present in e-cigarette aerosol emissions. Moreover, the literature referenced in the Surgeon General’s report describes effects in adults, not youth, and in animal models that have little relevance to real world e-cigarette use by youth. While the Surgeon General’s Report is an excellent reference document for the adverse outcomes due to nicotine in combination with several other toxicants present in tobacco smoke. it fails to address the risks of nicotine decoupled from tobacco smoke constituents, yet makes sweeping claims about e-cigarettes and nicotine in general”
The Surgeon-General’s report weighs in at a whopping 293 pages which lends itself to a new avenue for smoking cessation programmes.
Counsellor: ‘What can I do for you today?’
Client: ‘I’d like to give up smoking’
Counsellor: ‘Certainly. Step this way. You go ahead, I’ll just get the latest report from the US Surgeon-General.’
Sound of client slumping to the floor stunned by sharp blow to the back of the head.
‘Counsellor: ‘There. That should do it.’
Writing in the Washington Examiner, Guy Bentley relates the saga of trying to establish the evidence-base for the FDA’s Deeming Rules.
Jeff Stier of the National Center for Public Policy Research applied under the Freedom of Information Act and (as often happens with such requests) was asked to narrow the scope of his enquiry. Read the strange saga here – and, needless to say, there is still no answer to the original request.