Individuals and organisations with connections to Philip Morris International (PMI), the world’s largest publicly traded tobacco company, used Twitter to push pro-vaping messages.

The WHO Framework Convention on Tobacco Control

This occurred during a meeting of 182 signatories to the world’s first public health treaty, which aims to curb the harm caused by tobacco. Known as COP8, the eighth meeting of signatories to the World Health Organization’s (WHO) Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (FCTC) took place in 2018.

Dominating the Twittersphere

By analysing over 9,000 tweets and retweets with the meeting’s official hashtag – #COP8FCTC – researchers at the University of Bath found that PMI and its allies dominated the Twittersphere during, and immediately after, the meeting with messages that helped promote its business agenda.

Specifically, more than half (54%) of the tweets were about ‘next generation products’ (NGPs), a key part of the company’s new product portfolio, developed following declining smoking rates in many markets and sold alongside its traditional tobacco products.

Of these tweets about NGPs, almost two thirds (62%) argued in favour of more relaxed policies for those products. More than a third (35%) were critical towards people or organisations seen as opposed to NGPs.

Of the 152 Twitter accounts that were actively posting about the treaty, almost one-fifth (27) were from tobacco companies, or those with direct financial links to tobacco companies. Nearly half of those belonged to PMI. Two were PMI’s official corporate accounts, the other 11 belonged to PMI executives. A further 10 belonged to an employee of a tobacco company or to organisations that had received funding directly from one.

These included:

  • The Foundation for a Smoke-Free World (FSFW). Solely funded by PMI since it was set up in 2018 with a pledge of almost US$1bn over 12 years (US$80m annually)
  • “Independent” consumer advocacy group It receives funding from PMI, the Tobacco Vapor Electronic Cigarette Association and other companies that serve the tobacco industry
  • Lobbying organisation the Consumer Choice Center. As well as money from PMI, it has had funding from British American Tobacco and Japan Tobacco, two of the four largest transnational tobacco companies in the world.

NGP advocates

In addition to those with direct links to tobacco companies, one third (33%, 50/152) of the Twitter accounts were categorised as ‘NGP advocates’ and just over half of those (54%, 27/50) had indirect links to PMI, via the FSFW, or the FSFW’s grantees. Specifically, they were either employed by FSFW, had a governance role there, or were in some way affiliated with an organisation that FSFW funded. These organisations included:

Front groups and intermediaries

Speaking about the findings, published in Tobacco Control, lead author Dr Lindsay Robertson from the Tobacco Control Research Group at the University of Bath and a spokesperson for global tobacco industry watchdog STOP, said:

‘The tobacco industry has a long history of using front groups and intermediaries to make its arguments appear more credible and widely supported than they really are.

‘This “web of influence” suggests a strategic approach by PMI to influence treaty debates that is wholly consistent with the proposals set out in its leaked “10-Year Corporate Affairs Objectives and Strategies” document from 2014 [made available by Reuters as part of their “Philip Morris Files”].

‘We’re seeing more of these social media campaigns run by so-called vaping consumer advocacy groups which have links with the tobacco companies – examples include World Vape Day and #smokefree4life, which were run with help from groups linked to PMI through direct or indirect funding.’

Reuters investigation

Co-author Dr Karen Evans-Reeves, also of the Tobacco Control Research Group and a spokesperson for STOP, added:

‘We know from the Reuters investigation that, in 2016, PMI set up an “operations room”, in a hotel near the COP7 venue, to influence conference delegates. And tobacco industry representatives have posed as journalists or members of the public to access COP sessions. To prevent this at COP8, the public and the media were barred from official sessions.

‘However, the lack of regulation of online media means that tobacco companies can easily use Twitter to promote their agenda to a large audience.

‘Tobacco companies, with their “for-profit’ motive” should not have a voice in policy consultations, be it their own voice or a third-party voice.’

Advocating tobacco control

Dr Adriana Blanco Marquizo, Head, Secretariat of the WHO Framework Convention on Tobacco Control, added:

‘While the reaction of the tobacco industry and of those who work to further its interests shows us that we are on the right path, we can’t allow them to dominate the debate in social media channels.

'Today, more than ever, I call on civil society around the world, to help us to make the voice of the tobacco control community, our voice, heard.’