Exclusive: Philip Morris International continues its development charm offensive

Philip Morris International's research and development headquarters are pictured next to the company's factory in Neuchatel, Switzerland. Photo by: REUTERS / Paritosh Bansal

WASHINGTON — The world’s largest tobacco company, Philip Morris International, is continuing its push to refashion itself as an organization committed to global health and development, this time by purchasing entry into a membership society for development organizations and professionals.

This week, the multinational corporation, which manufactures Marlboro cigarettes — and which has, in recent years, pledged to pivot toward “smoke-free” tobacco products — became the newest dues-paying member of the Washington chapter of the Society for International Development, an international network committed to advancing global development.

PMI’s latest effort to court health and development organizations highlights a challenging question for institutions that are in the business of convening diverse players around a common platform: Which organizations should and should not be granted a seat at the table?

Big tobacco, global health, and the limits of shared value

Derek Yach, the president of the Foundation for a Smoke Free World, believes that after 100 years of undermining policy, obscuring science, and destroying human health, big tobacco can still change.

In 2018, World Health Organization Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus backed out of participating in the annual Concordia Summit in New York, after learning that Philip Morris International was one of the event’s programming sponsors.

“I have cancelled my participation in the @ConcordiaSummit after the tobacco industry, which profits from destroying health, announced it is sponsoring the event. #NoTobacco #BeatNCDs #UNGA,” Tedros wrote on Twitter at the time.

WHO’s policies prohibit partnerships with tobacco companies, and it has issued guidance to its partners in the health community not to work with the Foundation for a Smoke-Free World, which was created by Philip Morris International to advance research around smoke-free tobacco products, such as its signature electronic cigarette-like device, IQOS.

In an Oct. 29 tweet, which was deleted shortly after Devex contacted SID-Washington President Katherine Raphaelson, the organization wrote: “Welcome @InsidePMI to our Institutional Member (IM) community! Since 2008, Philip Morris International has invested more than $6bn into the science and research of developing smoke-free products.”

Raphaelson told Devex such tweets are standard practice for new institutional members, and do not represent any specific endorsement of PMI’s development credentials. Since Philip Morris International just recently joined SID-Washington, Raphaelson said she has not had a chance to speak to them about their reasons for pursuing a membership.

“They simply joined. Anybody can join SID-Washington that ... has any kind of involvement in international development. We're very open. So I haven't had a chance yet to actually reach out to them and learn more about what their interest is in joining,” she said.

In September 2018, PMI hired Aaron Sherinian, a well-known global development communications leader, to help mend the tobacco company’s relationships with the global health community as it sought to reposition itself as a pioneer in the field of “reduced risk” tobacco products, which some argue could save millions of lives by providing smokers with less harmful alternatives.

Raphaelson suggested that Sherinian, who previously oversaw communications for two other SID member organizations, led PMI’s outreach to SID-Washington.

“It wasn't outreach on our part, and I have not spoken or e-mailed or anything with them yet,” she added.

Jennifer Motles Svigilsky, director of social impact and sustainability at Philip Morris International, wrote to Devex that PMI joined SID-Washington “in line with our efforts to advance sustainability and further dialogue with different parts of society. We engage with various sectors of society and different stakeholders; SID is another platform that facilitates conversation, encourages constructive discussion, and fosters collaboration.”

Other institutional members include U.S. development contractors, consulting firms and NGOs, faith-based organizations, academic institutions, multilateral development banks, and global corporations including IBM. Devex is also an institutional member of SID-Washington. Philip Morris International appears to be the only tobacco company among the members.

So far, SID-Washington’s approach has been to leave the door open to anyone interested in participating in their programs, so long as they “share the values of the Society for International Development and are committed to working towards a world that is sustainable, just and inclusive,” according to the organization’s bylaws.

The process for determining who meets that bar is not entirely clear though — largely because SID-Washington has never been in the position of having to scrutinize a prospective member before, Raphaelson told Devex.

“It is something we probably need to look at and think about,” she said. “We have a membership committee, and we have this on the agenda for our next membership committee meeting.”

Raphaelson added that “it's never come up before that I'm aware of, but it's something that we will look at ... [and] probably elaborate on this within our bylaws.”

SID-Washington’s membership dues operate according to a tiered pricing system that increases according to the member organization’s revenue. The highest tier is for organizations with annual revenues of $500 million or more and costs $3,900. Philip Morris International’s revenue in 2018 was close to $80 billion.

“We're not advocating on behalf of our members. We're simply providing a neutral forum,” Raphaelson said. “We've always been considered Switzerland. We don't take a stand. We bring varied constituencies together for discussion.”

About the author

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    Michael Igoe

    Michael Igoe is a Senior Reporter with Devex, based in Washington, D.C. He covers U.S. foreign aid, global health, climate change, and development finance. Prior to joining Devex, Michael researched water management and climate change adaptation in post-Soviet Central Asia, where he also wrote for EurasiaNet. Michael earned his bachelor's degree from Bowdoin College, where he majored in Russian, and his master’s degree from the University of Montana, where he studied international conservation and development.