Special Feature

Experts caution against significant foreign influence in anti-tobacco policy making

While Indian Government bans over 14,000 NGOs under the Foreign Contribution Regulation Act (FCRA) for receiving funds from abroad, India continues to face the brunt of foreign funding with skewed tobacco regulations

The issue of foreign funding of NGO’s especially engaged in anti-tobacco lobbying is an age-old menace with far reaching ramifications. Owing to the skewed efforts of global anti-tobacco associations, Indian tobacco industry has historically seen stringent regulations, progressively transitioning to a ‘Nanny State’ adversely impacting consumer freedom of choice and increased instances of illegal trade and smuggling. Despite these instances, India boasts of the world’s second largest adult smoking population. The issue of foreign funding is not new. In 2017, owing to the efforts of Bloomberg Philanthropies, India saw 85% pictorial warnings on cigarette packets as opposed to the standard WHO guidelines of 50%.  Over the years, while the Indian Government has taken strict measures banning over 14,000 NGOs under the Foreign Contribution Regulation Act (FCRA) for receiving funds from abroad, yet the impact of foreign funding and its implication on policy making remains a huge global and Indian challenge.

In  February 2021, Michelle Minton, senior fellow at the Competitive Enterprise Institute wrote a piece titled “Bloomberg’s Philanthro-Colonialism: A Threat to Global Health and Science,” for which she was able to get her hands on internal documents from Bloomberg-funded Campaign For Tobacco-Free Kids organization. The article highlights the pernicious impact of the campaigns to target developing countries that goes much beyond standard tobacco-control measures such as taxes, age-gating, and advertising restrictions.

CTFK is one of the main outfits through which Bloomberg channels anti-tobacco money. Its stated mission is to cultivate and finance anti-tobacco efforts around the world. But its private plans reveal the scope and pervasiveness of its influence, particularly in developing regions Through synchronized efforts,  Bloomberg Philanthropies has been providing funding to foreign government entities, seemingly without much regard for those governments’ level of respect for liberal values and democratic governance.

Neither Bloomberg nor its direct recipients conceal their financial ties. Bloomberg Philanthropies maintains a database that allows anyone to explore where it’s more than $700 million in tobacco grants have gone over the years. The largest of these beneficiaries, like CTFK, the World Health Organization (WHO), the CDC Foundation, and the International Union Against Tuberculosis and Lung Disease (the Union), are similarly open about their relationship with Bloomberg. The existence and effects of this sort of cooperation are, if not disguised, so indirect they are often imperceptible.

As with all Bloomberg-funded anti-tobacco outfits, CTFK exclusively pursues a zero-tolerance approach to any and all use of “tobacco,” and demands the uniform application of aggressive tobacco laws dictated by international “authorities”

For the progress of societies and advancement of technologies zero Tolerance Doesn’t Work. Residents of LMICs have different priorities, resources, and access to services or therapies. Their cultural, economic, and geographic environments also factor into how they respond to regulatory changes (e.g. substitution, illicit markets, or homemade products). As such, policies that might reduce smoking in one country may not only fail to reduce smoking in another, but might cause people to engage in even more harmful behaviors.

CTFK’s strategy recklessly ignores these factors. It also ignores the fact that not all forms of tobacco use have the same risks. Despite the overwhelming evidence that non-combustible sources of nicotine (e.g. snus, heated tobacco, e-cigarettes) are radically less harmful and highly effective for smoking cessation, CTFK’s strategy includes demanding that LMICs—where 80% of the world’s smokers live and die—treat all tobacco equally, and apply the same high taxes, restrictions, and prohibitions to discourage or outright ban tobacco use to these potentially life-saving alternatives.

Funding Governments

CTFK has endeavored to influence all levels of the political process and its key players in various countries. This includes partnerships and collaborations (often financial) with activists, think tanks, professional associations, media, universities, and governments. At the top, CTFK decides the priorities and the best course of action, while its grantees, sub-grantees, and “partners” aid the effort by promulgating public endorsements, media coverage, supportive evidence, regulations, legislation, and discrediting of detractors.

In government, CTFK and its partners engage in lobbying, like most other advocacy organizations, but CTFK’s strategy for influencing tobacco policy really hinges on establishing itself as an indispensable resource for regulators and lawmakers. For example, the CTFK plan lists myriad examples of support it has provided to government entities, such as assisting in lawsuits against the tobacco industry in Brazil, Peru, Uruguay, Uganda, Nigeria, and Kenya.

The recent scandal over foreign political meddling in Mexico, where it was found that CTFK lawyers had fully written proposed legislation to ban e-cigarettes is an example of such instances. , It seems to be standard operating procedure for CTFK and its grantees to draft legislation for sympathetic lawmakers to then introduce.

In the Philippines, it describes efforts “to file and push a smoke-free bill” aimed at blocking tobacco industry representatives from being part of the policy process, further noting that such a bill “has been drafted and will be filed as soon as the opportunity is ripe.”

In China, Fudan University has received hundreds of thousands of dollars from CTFK to, among other things, “document and publicize evidence to demonstrate the positive impacts of the [smoke-free] law”—not investigate if it has positive impacts, but state that it does.

Similarly, U.S.-based universities also received financial support from CTFK, including the University of Illinois and Johns Hopkins University. CTFK credits the latter with publishing a report titled Tiny Targets that “aims to discredit the tobacco industry in Peru, Argentina, Bolivia, and Nicaragua.”

There are also many instances the fourth estate being manipulated. CTFK has been cultivating positive media coverage through training, workshops, and fellowships for journalists. In Bangladesh, its partner PROGGA, an anti-tobacco advocacy group, have “trained 350 print, broadcast or online media journalists across the country and supports the Anti-Tobacco Media Alliance (ATMA).”

In China, it lists “contractual partnerships” with Caixin Magazine and Xinhua News Agency—the state-run press agency, while the Communist Party has recently curtailed the ability of foreign entities to directly contract with media outlets in China,

Taken individually, the activities noted in CTFK’s strategy may not seem particularly problematic and its intentions sound well-meaning, portrayed as an effort to encourage the adoption of regulations that protect people from the harms of smoking. Viewed as a whole, however, the strategy of CTFK and the wider Bloomberg-funded anti-tobacco effort appears aimed at winning policy battles and passing laws with little consideration of whether they result in actual reductions in smoking or improvements in health.

There is evidence that alternative approaches work better for certain populations. These are vehemently rejected by the Bloomberg-funded anti-tobacco movement, who consistently ignore the successes of countries like Japan, where cigarette sales have dropped over 40% thanks to people switching to heat-not-burn tobacco products, and Sweden, which enjoys the lowest rates of smoking and lung cancer in the European Union as a result of its embrace of the use of non-combustible snus.

Despite all this, CTFK and its allies in the global tobacco control movement continue to advocate for policies that have been shown to consistently backfire with complete disregard for the well-being of people in LMIC countries. The strategy may be effective for manipulating LMICs into adopting the tobacco policies in Bloomberg and CTFK favor, but it may also exacerbate the legacy of colonialism in the developing world.

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