STOP — Bloomberg's response to tobacco industry tactics

Kelly Henning, lead of Bloomberg Philanthropies’ public health program. Photo by: Bloomberg Philanthropies

MANILA — At the recently concluded 17th World Conference on Tobacco or Health, Bloomberg Philanthropies founder Michael Bloomberg announced a new initiative: STOP, short for Stopping Tobacco Organizations and Products.

The new initiative aims to help organizations develop robust monitoring systems to identify and expose industry efforts that undermine tobacco control worldwide. With better information, governments and advocates can anticipate what kind of behavior or tactics the industry plans to use that counters public health efforts.

The initiative will have an initial $20 million commitment. Some of the money will be allocated for Bloomberg Philanthropies’ small grants program. This is “to make sure that the grantees on the ground have access to some funding to utilize the information [on tobacco industry tactics] at country level,” said Dr. Kelly Henning, who leads the foundation’s public health program.

Tobacco use kills more than 7 million people each year. And it is known to contribute to people developing lung cancer, heart diseases, and even tuberculosis. With wealthy countries now frequently placing high taxes and heavy restrictions on tobacco use, the burden of tobacco related illness is increasingly falling on the developing world — where tobacco taxes are still lax and product prices remain affordable.

But with the tobacco industry raking in billions of dollars in profits annually, how much of a match will STOP be in countering their tactics?

Devex spoke with Henning to learn more about the initiative, what kind of activities are they looking to fund under STOP, and how tobacco control advocates such as themselves can win against the industry’s aggressive promotions and interventions. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

How will STOP work exactly?

There is a request for proposals that was posted last Wednesday at the time of the announcement on our website so that organizations can go there and find the instructions for application. The applicants can be one organization, two organizations together, or three organizations together — up to three. At least one organization must be based in a low- or middle-income country. This call is open to both nonprofits or NGOs as well as academic institutions, and the funding will initially be for three years. We are going to see how it goes, and this is the initial commitment.

So in the proposal, it asks the applicant to talk about how they will set up their monitoring system using existing data and potentially collecting new information, how they will make that information publicly available to report on other mechanisms so that everyone knows what’s happening, how they will coordinate with the Bloomberg Philanthropies’ small grants program so that country-based groups can have access to some resources to use these information, and lastly a dissemination plan so everyone is fully informed.

So those are the four elements that are in the request for proposals.

What are some of the tactics by the industry that you’re trying to combat and that really pushed Bloomberg to launch this initiative?

As you know, there have been many types of activities that the tobacco industry has used to try to undermine MPOWER [WHO’s recommended control guidelines]. They include things like using international trade laws to try to reverse strong pack warnings or plain packaging. We’ve seen that with their trade litigation suits against Uruguay as well as Australia, both of which have been overturned and the companies have not prevailed, but that was a long, expensive, arduous process that these countries were engaged in.

They also used domestic litigations, so in India for example, dozens and dozens of lawsuits have been filed to push back against India’s very impactful 85 percent pictorial pack warning.

They do direct lobbying to policymakers. They participate in the development of tax plans, which I think the WHO’s Framework Convention on Tobacco Control is very clear about in Article 5.3 — the tobacco industry has really no place at the policymaking table.

How do you plan to match the huge amounts of money that big tobacco has and is pouring out there to influence and challenge tobacco control policies?

Bloomberg Philanthropies and Michael Bloomberg are under no illusions that we’re going to match the tobacco industry dollar for dollar. But we do believe that we have public health and public sentiment on our side. It’s very clear that if you use tobacco in the way in which it is intended, it kills up to 50 percent of users. And the tobacco industry continues to market to children and to young adults and to adolescents to hook more people on their products.

“What we’re doing with STOP is to try to give those public health experts a little extra help to make their case and to push forward, because we’re talking about a billion lives that could be lost in this century if we don’t move quickly forward with tobacco control.”

— Dr. Kelly Henning, public health program lead at Bloomberg Philanthropies

So we think the MPOWER policies and the Framework Convention on Tobacco Control lay out very clearly a way forward for governments. Almost 200 governments have signed up to participate in the Framework Convention on Tobacco Control. There is a commitment there. There is a right side, on the public health side, for this issue. And we think that really what we’re doing with STOP is to try to give those public health experts a little extra help to make their case and to push forward, because we’re talking about a billion lives that could be lost in this century if we don’t move quickly forward with tobacco control. 

We’ve seen a lot of progress already: In the last several years, more than 120 countries have passed best practice laws and policies, but we just need to do more.

Are there other donors or foundations investing in tobacco control?

There are certainly others that donate to tobacco control. And as soon as you donate to tobacco control you are de facto pushing back against industry forces. So the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation funds tobacco control. The Canadian government does some research funding for tobacco control. There are others around the world, such as some cancer associations.

We’re just shining an extra light on the industry’s behavior right now so that we can really help policymakers understand that it’s not in their best interest to interact and to take resources from the tobacco industry.

Do you see a role for Bloomberg Philanthropies in the discussion confronting the International Labour Organization and its relationship with the tobacco industry?

ILO chief wants to cut ties with big tobacco. Will the governing body heed the call?

More and more organizations are calling on the International Labour Organization to quit its relationship with big tobacco. But after ILO postponed a long-awaited vote on divestment, many wonder whether the governing body will be able to reach an agreement by the end of its 332nd session in Geneva on March 22.

We certainly support the position of the FCTC Secretariat and we’re fully supportive of the FCTC. We don’t have any particular programming at the moment around labor. We’re very focused on demand reduction, so smoke-free public places, advertising bans, availability of cessation services, pack warnings, and other ways of educating the public, and perhaps most importantly raising taxes on tobacco because price is one of the key drivers to helping people quit and not start using tobacco. So those are our focus areas, but of course we support the activities of the FCTC.

Increasingly I’m seeing some organizations partnering with alcohol companies. The Global Fund for example announced a partnership with Heineken to help the former in the delivery of health care supplies by taking advantage of its distribution system. Is that something Bloomberg Philanthropies is concerned with?

We don’t currently have a program at Bloomberg Philanthropies on safe alcohol consumption. But you’re right. There’s certainly increasing activity in that area and Mike Bloomberg is the WHO Global Ambassador for noncommunicable diseases. Misuse of alcohol is part of the NCD agenda, so in that sense of course we’re supportive of that work.

We also have a large road safety program at Bloomberg Philanthropies, and certainly drunk driving is one of the behavior change pieces of the road safety agenda, and in that context, we do work on eliminating drunk driving.

About the author

  • Jenny Lei Ravelo

    Jenny Lei Ravelo is a Devex Senior Reporter based in Manila. She covers global health, with a particular focus on the World Health Organization, and other development and humanitarian aid trends in Asia Pacific. Prior to Devex, she wrote for ABS-CBN, one of the largest broadcasting networks in the Philippines, and was a copy editor for various international scientific journals. She received her journalism degree from the University of Santo Tomas.