Two studies released yesterday allege that big tobacco companies tried to undermine anti-smoking policies in Asia by infiltrating a research institute in Thailand and providing funding for one in China.
Public health researchers from the University of Sydney and the University of Edinburgh analyzed internal industry documents made public following litigation in the US. The researchers claimed that Philip Morris planted a scientist in Chulabhorn Research Institute in Bangkok in a bid to get researchers to play down the impact of secondhand smoking.
A separate study including a Mayo Clinic researcher alleges that British American Tobacco provided funding in China for the Beijing Liver Foundation in a campaign to shift the focus there away from smoking dangers to ailments like liver disease.
Both companies denied the charges presented online in the Public Library of Science Medicine journal. The two studies were partly funded by the National Cancer Institute in the US.
Anti-smoking groups say big tobacco for years has sought to covertly influence government smoking policies and squash scientific findings highlighting the hazards of smoking.
Earlier reviews of company documents have claimed that cigarette companies worked to defeat a tobacco advertising ban in Europe, pressured drug companies to tone down marketing for smoking-cessation products and placed consultants at the WHO to try to subvert efforts to reduce smoking.
Critics contend the companies are turning increasingly to Asia where smokers are on the rise.
WHO estimated this year that 30 percent of the world’s smokers now live in China and 10 percent in India. Thailand has seen the number of cigarettes smoked more than double since 1972 to 42 billion sticks in 2004.
“There is no doubt that the WHO regrets the unethical behavior of tobacco companies that infiltrate research organizations to influence the research process and the findings of such organizations,” said Edouard Tursan d’Espaignet, an epidemiologist with the WHO’s Tobacco Free Initiative.
In the Thai study, University of Sydney’s Ross MacKenzie and University of Edinburgh’s Jeff Collin allege that Philip Morris scientist Roger Walk was able to lecture and organize conferences at the Thai government-funded Chulabhorn from the early 1990s to at least 2006.
The researchers say this allowed Philip Morris to develop relationships with key officials and scientists in efforts to discount the threat of secondhand smoke.
Spokeswoman Marija Sepic of Switzerland-based Philip Morris International — which separated this year from the US branch of the company — dismissed the documents as outdated and said the company never hid its affiliation with Walk.
However, Chulabhorn associate vice president Jutamaad Satayavivad said the institute was not aware Walk worked for Philip Morris until about a decade into his tenure. After seeing the study, institute officials plan to bar him because he was “not straightforward in sharing with us,” she said.
The other study alleges that London-based British American Tobacco used the Beijing Liver Foundation to lobby China’s Health Ministry in a campaign to forestall smoke-free legislation.
The researchers say documents show that the company provided training for industry, public officials and the media to spread its message that secondhand smoke was an insignificant source of pollution.