Health experts criticise tobacco-industry-funded foundation over PR spend

The Foundation for a Smoke-Free World, funded by Philip Morris International (PMI), is under fire by experts for spending significantly more on communications than research.

An example of content on the Foundation for a Smoke-Free World's website
An example of content on the Foundation for a Smoke-Free World's website

More than $7.5m was spent on comms in 2018, compared to $6.4m on research grants, according to the organisation’s tax return for that year.

WPP’s Ogilvy Public Relations Worldwide took the lion’s share of the comms spend, being paid more than $5.2m, while Mercury Public Affairs, part of the Omnicom Group, was paid nearly $700,000.

Criticism

This is part of "mounting evidence that the Foundation should be seen neither as an independent organisation nor as a primarily scientific one" according to the Tobacco Control Research Group at the University of Bath, headed by public-health expert Professor Anna Gilmore.

In a letter published in The Lancet last week, Gilmore and her colleagues stated that the Foundation, set up by PMI in 2017, "claims to be an independent scientific body aiming to 'accelerate an end to smoking'."

But they added that the Foundation has been dogged by controversy and "WHO [World Health organisation] and hundreds of public health organisations globally have taken a strong stance in rejecting collaboration with" it.

The letter stated: "This greater expenditure on public relations than on research does not match the picture the Foundation paints of itself as a scientific body but instead supports the growing consensus that the Foundation provides a key public relations function for Philip Morris International."

Fighting back

On its website, the Foundation states it will "fund research, promote innovation and support collaborative initiatives to accelerate progress in reducing harm and deaths from smoking worldwide".

Derek Yach, the Foundation’s president, hit back at the criticism about its levels of PR spend.

In a statement to PRWeek, he said: "Our first-year communications costs are in line with what it takes to build a global foundation from scratch addressing a health problem that impacts over a billion people."

Yach added: "Among these initial investments, we reached millions of smokers using insights derived from our survey of 18,000 people in 13 countries. These early start-up cost structures have shifted markedly to grant-making."

The Foundation plans to distribute more than $100m in grant funds over the next few years.

Ogilvy declined to comment and Mercury did not respond to requests for comment by PRWeek.

PRWeek understands that Ogilvy no longer works for the Foundation, partly to avoid any conflict with its health clients.

Negative coverage

The Foundation’s investment in PR appears to have had mixed results.

New research looking at coverage during the first six months after its launch in September 2017, published in JMIR Public Health and Surveillance, stated: "A majority of articles were slanted negatively toward the FSFW."

The analysis of more than 100 news articles about the Foundation found that the argument most often found in negative coverage was that the "FSFW was not credible because of the funding link to PMI".

It added: "Other arguments against the FSFW were that the foundation was established as a tactic to mislead and undermine effective tobacco control measures, to deceitfully ensure sustained profitability of the tobacco industry, and to disingenuously makeover PMI’s corporate image."

The paper concluded: "Despite attempts by both PMI and the FSFW to steer media coverage in a positive direction, the tobacco control community’s views opposing this new venture dominated the news reporting."

Commenting on the research, Gilmore told PRWeek: "Despite the Foundation spending millions on PR – far more than on research – the news reporting of the formation of the Foundation has primarily been framed by doubt, scepticism and disapproval."

It is "resounding proof that money can’t buy credibility", she added.

Responding to the research, Yach added: "It’s not about a launch that matters, it’s about results. Many foundations have started in a critical environment and ultimately effected vital change.  Our focus is on delivering substantive insights that lead to the end of smoking combustible cigarettes. That is how we should, and will, be judged."


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