An international committee of experts has concluded that for many years some tobacco companies deliberately subverted WHO’s efforts to control tobacco use1. With the release of previously confidential documents, the report’s authors state that “What is now clear is the scale and intensity of their often deceptive strategies and tactics”. The documents show that companies sought to: divert attention from the public health issues; reduce budgets for scientific and policy activities carried out by WHO; discredit WHO as an institution and to pit other UN agencies against it; persuade developing countries that WHO had a “First World” agenda that was contrary to that of the developing world: and distort the results of important scientific studies on tobacco.
Looking out to what kind of future? WHO is overcoming many obstacles in its determination to stop people, like this woman in the Dominican Republic, damaging their health by smoking
Photo: WHO/PAHO/A. Waak
In their campaign against WHO, the documents show that tobacco companies often hid behind a variety of ostensibly independent, quasi-academic, public policy and business organizations whose tobacco industry funding was not disclosed. Tobacco company strategies to undermine WHO relied heavily on international and scientific experts with hidden ties to the industry, it was revealed.
Protecting WHO’s integrity
The Committee of Experts believes that there are important lessons to be learned from this experience. They conclude that WHO should strengthen its policies on conflict of interest, with all staff, consultants, temporary advisers and members of expert committees having to declare personal financial interests. There should be clear and well enforced penalties for anyone breaking the rules. No one with financial ties to the tobacco industry should be able to work for WHO, and the Organization should educate scientists and collaborators about the need for vigilance when dealing with the tobacco industry, the experts concluded.
1. WHO, Tobacco company strategies to undermine tobacco control activities at the World Health Organization. Report of the Committee of Experts on Tobacco Industry Documents. Geneva: World Health Organization; 2000.
Available on the Web at: http://tobacco.who.int/repository/stp58/who_inquiry.pdf