This paper examines the efforts of consultants affiliated with Philip Morris (PM), the world's leading transnational tobacco corporation, to influence scientific research and training in Thailand via the Chulabhorn Research Institute (CRI). A leading Southeast Asian institute for environmental health science, the CRI is headed by Professor Dr. Her Royal Highness Princess Chulabhorn, the daughter of the King of Thailand, and it has assumed international significance via its designation as a World Health Organization (WHO) Collaborating Centre in December 2005.
Methods and Findings
This paper analyses previously confidential tobacco industry documents that were made publicly available following litigation in the United States. PM documents reveal that ostensibly independent overseas scientists, now identified as industry consultants, were able to gain access to the Thai scientific community. Most significantly, PM scientist Roger Walk has established close connections with the CRI. Documents indicate that Walk was able to use such links to influence the study and teaching of environmental toxicology in the institute and to develop relations with key officials and local scientists so as to advance the interests of PM within Thailand and across Asia. While sensitivities surrounding royal patronage of the CRI make public criticism extremely difficult, indications of ongoing involvement by tobacco industry consultants suggest the need for detailed scrutiny of such relationships.
The establishment of close links with the CRI advances industry strategies to influence scientific research and debate around tobacco and health, particularly regarding secondhand smoke, to link with academic institutions, and to build relationships with national elites. Such strategies assume particular significance in the national and regional contexts presented here amid the globalisation of the tobacco pandemic. From an international perspective, particular concern is raised by the CRI's recently awarded status as a WHO Collaborating Centre. Since the network of WHO Collaborating Centres rests on the principle of “using national institutions for international purposes,” the documents presented below suggest that more rigorous safeguards are required to ensure that such use advances public health goals rather than the objectives of transnational corporations.
Jeff Collin and Ross MacKenzie analyze tobacco industry documents and find that Philip Morris consultants were able to gain access to a Thai research institute that is a WHO Collaborating Centre.
Tobacco use kills 5.4 million people a year (one person every six seconds) and accounts for one in ten adult deaths worldwide. Globally, the use of tobacco is on the rise, especially in developing countries, which have become a major target for tobacco industry marketing. The tobacco industry has worked hard to try and influence public perceptions about the risks of smoking and the risk of inhaling secondhand smoke (passive smoking). The industry has used a variety of tactics to downplay the health hazards of smoking or inhaling secondhand smoke—two examples are publishing articles casting doubts about the health hazards of tobacco and funding research that is biased toward giving pro-industry results. Another tactic is for tobacco industry consultants to try and gain entry to universities and other academic centers to see if they can influence research and teaching activities.
Why Was This Study Done?
The researchers were concerned that consultants from the tobacco company Philip Morris had gained access to an academic research center in Thailand called the Chulabhorn Research Institute (CRI). The CRI is an internationally renowned teaching institution for a variety of scientific disciplines, including environmental toxicology (the study of how chemicals in the environment, such as tobacco smoke, can affect human health), biomedicine, and biotechnology. The institute has secured funding from the Thai government, the Association of Southeast Nations and the United Nations Development Programme. In 2005 the institute's environmental toxicology unit was designated a World Health Organization (WHO) Collaborating Centre. WHO Collaborating Centres are “institutions such as research institutes, parts of universities or academies, that are designated by the Director-General of the WHO to carry out activities in support of the WHO's programs” (http://www.who.int/collaboratingcentres/en/). The researchers were concerned that Philip Morris consultants had been able to develop relationships with the CRI to help advance the company's interests.
What Did the Researchers Do and Find?
The researchers analyzed previously confidential tobacco industry documents that were made publicly available online following litigation in the United States. They searched two online collections of industry documents—the Legacy Tobacco Documents Library and Tobacco Documents Online—as well as the online collections operated by US-based tobacco companies. They found that consultants to Philip Morris were able to gain access to the scientific community in Thailand. A Philip Morris scientist named Roger Walk was able to establish close connections to the CRI, and he used these connections to influence research and teaching activities at the CRI on environmental toxicology. Walk was also able to build relationships with government officials and scientists in Thailand to help advance the interests of Philip Morris in the country and across Asia.
What Do these Findings Mean?
This study provides evidence that the tobacco industry has established close links with a research institute in Thailand that collaborates with the WHO, and has been able to influence the institute's teaching curriculum and research. Such links are of great concern to the public health community, which is working hard to reduce deaths and disease due to tobacco. These links raise the possibility that the tobacco industry is managing to influence medical research and teaching at academic institutions. The WHO has stated that a firewall is in place between itself and the tobacco industry—but the study authors argue, based on their findings, that “this firewall is not impenetrable.” The study findings, they conclude, highlight a challenge posed to international tobacco control efforts, especially with respect to Article 5.3 of an international treaty called the WHO Framework Convention on Tobacco Control; Article 5.3 addresses the need to protect public health policies from the vested interests of the tobacco industry. The authors say that better safeguards must be put in place to prevent tobacco companies from thwarting public health goals.
Please access these Web sites via the online version of this summary at http://dx.doi.org/10.1371/journal.pmed.0050238.
The Legacy Tobacco Documents Library contains over 9.7 million documents created by tobacco companies
Tobacco Documents Online contains over 4 million tobacco industry documents
Over 900 WHO Collaborating Centres are at work in 99 Member States on many health disciplines
The WHO held an inquiry in 2000 into possible tobacco industry influence over the organization (and over other UN agencies), and has published its recommendations in response to this inquiry
The WHO Framework Convention on Tobacco Control is an international treaty on controlling tobacco