Bloomberg-funded groups accused of intervening in LMICs’ smoking-cessation strategies
PANAMA CITY—Tobacco harm reduction advocates have revealed the substantial influence of non-governmental organizations funded by Bloomberg Philanthropies in intervening in smoking cessation strategies of low- and middle-income countries.
The Taxpayers Protection Alliance (TPA), a U.S. nonprofit advocacy group, is hosting "GOOD COP/BAD COP," where leading voices on consumer issues, national and global policies, and harm reduction representing 14 countries have a platform to discuss relevant tobacco control issues. The event takes place on the sidelines of the ongoing Conference of the Parties (COP) meeting on the World Health Organization Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (WHO FCTC), where participation has been strictly limited, and advocates with views differing from the WHO have been excluded. The COP delegates are currently deliberating on the future of novel tobacco products, which are touted as less harmful alternatives to smoking, based on scientific evidence.
Will Godfrey, executive director of FILTER, a group advocating for rational and compassionate approaches to drug policy and human rights, said Bloomberg funding was disrupting smoking cessation efforts in low- and middle-income countries with high smoking rates, where money could buy more influence.
“I do think it's sickening that so many people in these countries are being deprived of their best chance to quit cigarettes and to see Bloomberg-affiliated groups actually celebrating the bans that accomplish it,” Godfrey said.
Advocates criticized Bloomberg Philanthropies' policy interventions in countries such as Mexico, India, Kenya and Pakistan, including efforts to block essential legislation in the Philippines.
Tomás O'Gorman, co-founder of Pro-Vapeo Mexico, noted the stagnation of smoking rates in Mexico in the absence of harm reduction practices. He attributed the push for vaping bans to the influence of the Bloomberg Initiative.
O'Gorman noted that the Mexican president even proposed an amendment to the Mexican Constitution to ban the commercialization of vaping products. "We all know that the prohibitionist idea or the prohibitionist narrative comes mainly from the Bloomberg Initiative. I was quite surprised that on the first day of the COP, the Mexican delegate acknowledged when he took the floor, that they were having the support of the Bloomberg Initiative," he said.
"There have been several indications that foreign NGOs are the ones dictating how Mexico should proceed regarding the regulation of these products," O'Gorman said. "I believe that Mexico is following the suggestions and the policies that have been created by these foreign entities to ban vaping and THR products in LMICs."
Meanwhile, Dr. Rohan Andrede de Sequeira, a professor of Medicine in India, criticized the pressure from organizations linked to Bloomberg Philanthropies to reject harm reduction principles, emphasizing the urgent need for India to make its own decisions regarding tobacco control.
"So if any country practically needs a THR policy, it would be India because this is where it would have the biggest impact," he said. "What is really needed right now is for the country to make its own decision rather than be bullied by some major organizations. They need to look at their own population."
Dr. de Sequeira said India even received an award from the World Health Organization for banning vaping. "I would call it pernicious influence because that is influencing your politics?" he said, despite the fact that India had 1.2 million deaths last year due to smoking.
"I don't think that what Bloomberg is doing is legitimate. He's putting money into a cause that he believes is justified. The problem is that he's not subjected to any accountability, and it is affecting the democratization of society," said Dr. Roberto Sussman, a senior researcher at the Institute of Nuclear Sciences at the National University of Mexico. "Second, it is a massive conflict of interest," he added.
Jeannie Cameron, CEO of UK-based strategic advocacy group JCIC International, said that in the Philippines, Bloomberg-funded groups were caught trying to influence government policy during the enactment of the Vape Law. "They were actually caught writing policy to the government, which was against the Constitution of the country. And they reacted very badly to that," she said.
Martin Cullip, an international fellow at TPA’s Consumer Center, criticized Bloomberg-funded groups for their efforts to restrict nicotine pouches in markets with heavy smoking rates such as Kenya and Pakistan, labeling such actions as detrimental to public health and driven by ideology.
"These seem to me very good markets for nicotine pouches because they're low cost and they can get in places where there's heavy smoking rates, and yet they seem to be trying to damage the potential market in Pakistan and Kenya and trying to get the government to kick those products out and prohibit them, which is so anti-public health. This is ideological and it is damaging," said Cullip.
An article published by The Lancet authored by Robert Beaglehole and Ruth Bonita, one of the oldest peer-reviewed medical journals, stated that tobacco harm reduction should be a central strategy of the WHO FCTC in addition to the measures for demand and supply reduction which are necessary but not sufficient. The WHO’s lack of endorsement of tobacco harm reduction limits healthier choices for 1.3 billion people globally who smoke and who are at an increased risk of early death.
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