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WHO says tobacco industry “used” institute to undermine its policies

BMJ 2001; 322 doi: https://doi.org/10.1136/bmj.322.7286.576 (Published 10 March 2001) Cite this as: BMJ 2001;322:576
  1. Rhona MacDonald
  1. BMJ

    The tobacco industry has been accused by the World Health Organization (WHO) of using a scientific institute to undermine its efforts to control and reduce the use of tobacco. The industry helped to finance a symposium on smoking run by the institute and tried to influence the topics discussed at another one, WHO alleges.

    The credibility of the International Life Sciences Institute, which is funded partly by the food and drinks industry, has been called into question in a document drawn up by the WHO's tobacco free initiative. It provides evidence that the institute was receiving money from the tobacco industry throughout the period 1983 to 1998.

    The institute describes itself as an independent, non-governmental organisation that “advances the understanding of scientific issues relating to nutrition, food safety, toxicology, risk assessment and the environment by bringing together scientists, government, industry and the public sector.”

    The fact that the 60 industry members of the organisation are never mentioned by name, however, was criticised recently when a book on alcohol related health issues supported by the institute did not mention that the alcohol industry was involved (10 February, p 319).

    The WHO document, which has been published on its website this week, said that tobacco companies have attempted to undermine tobacco control efforts over the past few decades and that one of the ways they do this is to fund and become involved in “seemingly” unbiased scientific groups, therefore “manipulating the political and scientific debate concerning tobacco and health.”

    It goes on to use the institute as an example and suggests that the institute was used by certain tobacco companies to try to “thwart tobacco control actions.”

    The evidence comes from documents released by the Minnesota settlement in 1998, under which the tobacco industry had to make 40 million pages of previously confidential documents available for public inspection at depositories in the United States and Britain. Some of these documents can now be accessed on the websites of the tobacco companies Philip Morris and R J Reynolds.

    Over 700 documents on these websites refer to institute conferences, publications, and communications from 1983 to 1998, some of which show that the institute received funding from, and was influenced by, the tobacco industry.

    In 1993, for example, the institute received $40000 (£27000) from Steven Parrish, the vice president of Philip Morris for “services rendered.” In 1988 a representative from R J Reynolds became a member of an independent scientific committee convened by the institute to develop toxicology evaluation criteria.

    Dr Derek Yach, executive director of the WHO's non-communicable diseases section, told the BMJ that these questionable activities were “highly suggestive that ILSI [the International Life Sciences Institute] attempted to undermine the WHO's tobacco control policy.” He said that the non- governmental status of the institute would be called into question at the next WHO executive board meeting.

    Paula Murphy, a spokeswoman for the institute, refuted the allegations, however. She said that the conclusions reached in the WHO document were “inaccurate.” They contained “no empirical support for any conclusion that any ILSI sponsored science based function or work product was not a balanced representation of existing scientific understanding and thought.” She added: “No amount of innuendo or suggestion should be allowed to obscure that fact.”

    She also said that the document's suggestion that the institute had been involved in significant tobacco related work was “simply and unequivocally not true.” Apart from a symposium series on inhalation toxicology, which included only a small percentage of papers addressing tobacco smoke, the institute “has conducted no programmes, published no articles, and undertaken no activities concerning tobacco or environmental tobacco smoke.”

    She said that she was troubled by even the suggestion that the institute had “worked to undermine tobacco control efforts.” The WHO document relied primarily on Philip Morris memorandums that reflected that company's desires and plans, not the institute's. She added: “If Philip Morris attempted to influence ILSI, the attempt failed.”

    The Tobacco Industry and Scientific Groups ILSI: A Case Study is accessible at: www.who.int/genevahearings/inquiry.html. The International Life Sciences Institute's website is http://www.ilsi.org/

    Figure1

    Three boys light up in front of an antismoking poster in Kiev

    (Credit: AP PHOTO/EFREM LUKATSKY)

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