No Smoke without Fire

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It's been dubbed the Boca Raton Action Plan, after the Florida town where the plot was hatched. There, in late 1988, senior executives from one of the world's most powerful and pervasive industries "sat together to design and set in motion elaborate strategies to subvert a public health organization." Their efforts are described as "well-financed, sophisticated and usually invisible." Most ominously, "the number of lives damaged or lost as a result ... may never be quantified." The plot of the latest John Grisham novel? No. The Boca Raton Action Plan is the subject of a 260-page report published last week by the Geneva-based World Health Organization (WHO), which accuses tobacco companies, including Philip Morris and British American Tobacco (BAT), of waging a dirty tricks campaign against its tobacco control agenda for many years.

After examining thousands of pages of tobacco industry papers that emerged through U.S. lawsuits, an independent panel convened by the WHO concluded that the documents show that tobacco companies viewed it "as one of their leading enemies." The panel said the documents show that tobacco companies sought to reduce budgets for the WHO's activities, to pit other U.N. agencies against it, to convince developing countries that the WHO's tobacco control program was a First World agenda carried out at their expense, to distort the results of scientific studies on tobacco and to discredit the who as an organization.

The tobacco industry does not deny the accusations. Philip Morris, while insisting that it has done "nothing improper," admitted that it paid scientists to attend who meetings. The firm explained away its past actions as being "the product of a polarized and unproductive environment in which few solutions were sought and conflict prevailed over consensus," adding that it "regrets this."

BAT adopted a more aggressive stance in its response, criticizing the U.N. agency for choosing to "take a step backward rather than addressing our common interest in [a] sensible tobacco policy." Arguing that the report "misrepresents the tobacco industry's legitimate lobbying activity," BAT blames the WHO for excluding the tobacco industry from the process of forming an international tobacco policy. Jonathan Fell, a tobacco analyst at Merrill Lynch in London, sympathizes with BAT's frustration. "The industry has been trying to get involved in [constructive engagement] for a while, arguing not unreasonably that they might have some useful input into the process. But the WHO is not interested in engaging in dialogue."

The WHO is now preparing public hearings in October on a Framework Convention on Tobacco Control designed to cut tobacco consumption and stem the rising death toll from related diseases estimated at 4 million per year by May 2003. The tobacco industry has been invited, but its representatives will each be limited to five minutes of presentation and five pages of written submission. But an industry that has survived multibillion dollar lawsuits and an avalanche of damning scientific studies is bound to find its own ways of getting its message across.