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The tobacco company Philip Morris has sponsored courses for doctors in many countries to lobby for their interests and promote their products. Critics have called this a “grotesque” strategy. The company is also an international sponsor of the war in Ukraine.

Health education programs on smoking cessation and harm reduction in South Africa, the Middle East and the United States were supported by Philip Morris International (PMI) or its regional subsidiaries, The Guardian reports.

The World Health Organization (WHO) has warned of the risk that public health efforts could be undermined and called for a ban on such partnerships.

Dr. Tess Legg of the University of Bath’s Tobacco Control Research Group said that sponsoring medical education is part of a “strategy to influence how science is used in medical practice and to try to restore confidence in the industry among healthcare professionals.”

Nicholas Hopkinson, Professor of Respiratory Medicine at Imperial College London, said: “Based on market share (around 15%) and the global number of deaths from smoking (over 8 million annually), Philip Morris kills at least one million people every year. The idea that this should play a role in medical education is grotesque.”

In addition, Philip Morris did not close (although they promised to close) their business in Russia, they continue to work there and finance Putin’s army.

Sponsored courses allow participants to collect credits, which indicates that they are participating in post-qualification training. As a rule, doctors must collect a certain number of “continuing medical education”(CME) or “continuing professional development”(CPD) points annually to continue practicing.

Hopkinson called on bodies that provide or regulate medical education to “issue clear statements and policies that tobacco industry involvement is completely prohibited.”

Dr. Rüdiger Krech, Director of the WHO Health Promotion Division, called on certification bodies to ban partnerships with tobacco and related industries in medical education. “There is a clear commercial interest that can spread misinformation, undermining public health efforts,” he said.

“Healthcare professionals should be supported by evidence-based education, education should be transparent and meet the highest ethical standards.”

One organization of physicians in South Africa, the Alliance of South African Independent Practitioners (Asaipa), offered webinars on harm reduction in health care “sponsored by Philip Morris South Africa.”

Sharon Nyatsanza, deputy director of the National Council Against Smoking in South Africa, said that sponsorship could violate local laws aimed at reducing the influence of the tobacco industry.

She said: “We hope public health professionals know who PMI really is. PMI, the world’s largest cigarette manufacturer, has a history of funding research, medical professionals, and front groups in ways that promote their own interests and conflict with public health.”

Along with many South African health NGOs and professionals, she wrote to the Medical Council of South Africa urging it to establish a clear policy that funding and sponsorship of the tobacco industry will not be permitted. They also asked that CPD credits for tobacco company-sponsored events be canceled.

In a statement, Asaipa said that the content of all CPD webinars has been reviewed “to ensure that no products of any partner are promoted during the training sessions and that all statements made during these sessions are based on clinical data and evidence.”

The statement adds that Asaipa “is committed to maintaining the highest standards of integrity, transparency and ethical behavior in all of our endeavors” and will “conduct a thorough review of our sponsorship and participation in PMI to ensure that our actions are consistent with our mission and values.”

A number of online courses run by training provider Middle East Medical have been sponsored by Philip Morris, including a workshop for healthcare professionals and researchers in the region on April 26 last year, “sponsored by Philip Morris Management Services (Middle East) Ltd.” The content included “barriers to harm reduction implementation” and “what is the evidence base for smoking cessation”. The spokesperson said that the company “ceased cooperation with PMI in 2023.”

PMI also sponsors sessions and speakers at conferences in countries such as Jordan and Egypt.

Dr. Ahmad Abbadi, Regional Coordinator for the Eastern Mediterranean at the Global Alliance for Tobacco Control, said he fears that tobacco companies are targeting countries with weaker laws and regulations, especially on conflicts of interest.

“It’s a great opportunity to speak out […] for the benefit of the industry,” Abbadi said, adding that many of his contemporaries went abroad to work when he was a Jordanian medical student. “I’m in Sweden, many of my classmates are in the US, Canada and the UK, all over the world,” he said. “You affect the region itself, but also the entire globe, because the world is more connected.”

Abbadi said the idea of harm reduction is crucial to public health, citing examples such as car seat belts, but the term has been co-opted as a marketing tool for tobacco companies to promote new products, including heated tobacco.

The WHO emphasized the lack of independent research supporting the claim that they are less harmful than cigarettes.

Philip Morris CEO Andre Kalantzopoulos poses with the IQOS tobacco heating device. Photo: Kim Kyung-Hoon/Reuters

Medscape, a US website for healthcare professionals, has canceled a planned series of smoking cessation education courses “supported by an independent educational grant from Philip Morris International” after criticism from doctors and scientists. It said that the use of PMI funding “was a poor judgment call that was out of character” and that it would not accept funding for the tobacco industry in the future.

A spokesperson for Philip Morris International said the company “believes that tobacco harm reduction education is vital to improving public health.

According to him, PMI provides educational grants for evidence-based programs that are conducted independently of PMI and meet accredited standards, including subsequent independent third-party academic review.

“The funding is clearly labeled and indicates support for PMI. We have no control over the course materials, and it is unreasonable to claim that these programs are aimed at promoting PMI products. Our activities comply with all applicable laws.”