Geneva’s International Chamber Of Commerce Hosts Dialogue Involving Geneva UN Agency and Big Tobacco – For Second Year In A Row
Every year, tobacco consumption claims 8 million lives and costs economies $1.4 trillion

For the second year in a row, Geneva’s International Chamber of Commerce has hosted a dialogue bringing local tobacco industry leaders together with a major Geneva-based UN Agency – in this case to discuss the ‘role of multinationals in economic recovery following the coronavirus’. 

The ICC’s 6th Business Dialogue, involving Teresa Moreira, Head Competition and Consumer Policies Branch of UNCTAD, the UN’s main body for trade, investment and development issues, and Vice President External Affairs of Philip Morris International Gabriela WURCEL, took place on Wednesday evening at the Four Seasons Hotel in Geneva. 

Face-to-face meetings in such fora are supposed to be taboo in the UN system, according to the model policy for agencies of the United Nations system on preventing tobacco industry interference, which was developed out of the WHO Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (FCTC), a WHO official told Health Policy Watch.

“The policy runs across all UN, ‘to ensure that efforts to protect tobacco control from commercial and other vested interests of the tobacco industry are comprehensive, effective and consistent,’” said the official who asked not to be named. 

Thomas Pletscher, the ICC’s Secretary General, said UNCTAD did not express any reservations about participating in the event with PMI, in the same format as it did last year, to Health Policy Watch.

UNCTAD’s Teresa Moreira did not respond to queries from Health Policy Watch regarding her appearance. The UNCTAD media team also declined to respond. 

UNCTAD headquarters in Geneva

Event is Example of Way Tobacco Industry Exerts Political Influence 

The participation of big tobacco in a dialogue focusing on coronavirus recovery was all the more ironic, in light of the fact that tobacco use increases vulnerability to serious cases of COVID-19:

A WHO review of studies by public health experts published in April found that smokers are more likely to develop severe disease with COVID-19, compared to non-smokers.  

And only last week, WHO, released a major brief detailing how most countries in the world are still failing to enact robust policies to increase tobacco taxation, limit advertising and expand smoke-free public spaces — and that is often due to the industry’s outsize political influence. 

Asked about the meeting, happening in WHO’s own Geneva backyard, a WHO spokesperson declined to comment publicly. 

Anti-tobacco campaigners have  frequently called out the ways in which industry exerts its political influence, interferring in the development of stronger national control measures.   

Interference by the tobacco industry remains one of the greatest obstacles to implementing the WHO FCTC,” one expert source told Health Policy Watch.

“Tobacco industry interference takes many forms…. exaggerating the economic importance of the industry while ignoring the social, environmental and health costs caused by tobacco and tobacco products; manipulating public opinion to gain the appearance of respectability, this is part of efforts to look “socially responsible”. The corporate social responsibility of the tobacco industry is an inherent contradiction since the tobacco industry’s core functions are in conflict with the goals of public health. “

In Switzerland alone, where the tobacco industry still thrives, tobacco products account for 15% of total deaths every year – or four times as many as the coronavirus. The current coronavirus death toll has almost reached 2100 deaths, compared to some 9,500 yearly deaths from tobacco, reports the Federal Office of Public Health.

ICC Calls PMI’s Invitation “Mere Coincidence”

Thomas Pletscher, ICC Secretary General

When asked why the ICC chose to invite PMI, for the second year in a row to its annual dialogue event, Pletscher told Health Policy Watch the choice was “mere coincidence”.

Asked why the ICC didn’t invite one of the many other Swiss-based multinationals, such as Nestlé or Procter & Gamble, Pletscher acknowledged that locally, the ICC’s contacts with P&G were not as close as those with PMI.

“We choose panelists according to familiarity with the topic, mixture of the panel and notably availability,” Pletscher said. “Nestlé was not available for speaking and we do have less close contacts to P&G in Switzerland. There is no priority for PMI, it is mere coincidence.”

Asked why the ICC could justify an invitation to the world’s largest tobacco company for meeting on economic recovery from COVID, Pletscher argued that PMI’s “challenges and opportunities” are “similar” to other multinationals that may be in the same boat as PMI.

PMI headquarters in Lausanne, Switzerland

“In fact, PMI employs more than 70,000 people at 38 production facilities worldwide and is a typical global manufacturer including close links to primary sector, logistics and distribution,” said Pletscher. “We expect contributions on the panel [to] how PMI reacts to such and other challenges [including] organisation of work, protection of workers, working from home and ensuring the supply chain.”

The ICC, headquartered in Paris with 45 million members in 100 countries worldwide, is a well-known vehicle for big tobacco’s interests for over two decades, civil society critics say.

Even so, the policy of the Geneva ICC branch is particularly regrettable, given the plethora of other multinationals headquartered in Switzerland- some of which can “genuinely” contribute to economic recovery, said Mary Assunta, of the Bangkok-based Global Center for Good Governance in Tobacco Control (GGTC). 

“The tobacco industry cannot be involved in economic recovery,” said Assunta, “Its traditional products kill 8 million people a year and cause poverty and human suffering. Its new products [smokeless tobacco and electronic nicotine delivery systems] result in youth addiction and cause health harms.” 

Tobacco Industry Put Workers at Risk In COVID-19 Pandemic  

Louis Laurence, Researcher for University of Bath’s Tobacco Control Research Group

In its rush to maintain supply chains and sales, PMI also put factory workers at risk during the pandemic – especially in Indonesia, Argentina and Pakistan, charged Louis Laurence, Investigative Researcher for the Tobacco Control Research Group at the University of Bath.

“It is sickening that ICC thinks a tobacco company can contribute to economic recovery post COVID-19,” Anna Gilmore, Professor of Public Health at the University of Bath, and a partner of tobacco industry watchog STOP, told Health Policy Watch. 

Along with violating UN policy, UNCTAD’s repeated exchange with PMI at the ICC means that it is also contributing, at least indirectly, to tobacco interference within international fora, Gilmore added. 

Loss Of “Credibility” For Geneva ICC   

Overtures to PMI also reflect a “loss of credibility” for the ICC as an international face of the business community in Geneva, Gilmore said.  While it is member states, and not businesses, that are signatories to the WHO FCTC, the ICC should set the example by aligning to UN norms.

“Since ICC is ostensibly partnering with UN agencies, it should abide by the UN Norms and values that are reflected in the WHO FCTC [these include] WHO FENSA, UN Model Policy on Tobacco Industry Interference for the UN System, and UN human rights principles,” she said.

Anna Gilmore, Professor of Public Health at the University of Bath

Every year, tobacco consumption claims 8 million lives and costs the economy $1.4 trillion, she pointed out. “Even without the additional burden from COVID, most countries around the world already struggle to cope with the massive health care burden caused by smoking.

“Not only is there is clear evidence that smokers have worse outcomes from COVID-19, but tobacco companies have actively sought to undermine efforts to control the pandemic,” warned Gilmore, noting that recent tobacco advertising has also aimed to cast doubts about proven links between smoking and serious COVID-19 disease.

Updated 2 October 2020


Image Credits: SimonDes, WHO FCTC, Mourad Ben Abdallah, ICC, Louis Laurence, Anna Gilmore.

Combat the infodemic in health information and support health policy reporting from the global South. Our growing network of journalists in Africa, Asia, Geneva and New York connect the dots between regional realities and the big global debates, with evidence-based, open access news and analysis. To make a personal or organisational contribution click here on PayPal.