U.N. Health Agency Starts Tobacco Industry Inquiry
The World Health Organization (WHO) launched an inquiry Tuesday into what it called a ``systematic and global'' bid by the tobacco industry to undermine U.N. efforts to control smoking.
The U.N. health agency named top Swiss public health official Thomas Zeltner to head a committee of independent experts who are to review evidence and recommend further action.
Evidence pointing to efforts to influence policy-making and funding at U.N. agencies had been found among internal tobacco industry files made public under a landmark U.S. court decision last year, the WHO said in a statement.
``Documentary evidence points to a systematic and global effort by the tobacco industry to undermine tobacco control policy and research and development within the United Nations family, including its member states, and within the academic and NGO (non-governmental organization) communities,'' the WHO said.
``Consequently, WHO director-general Dr. Gro Harlem Brundtland today called for a preliminary inquiry into the nature and extent of the undue influence which the tobacco industry has exercised over U.N. organizations.''
About 35 million pages of documents from internal files, including those of Philip Morris, B.A.T. Industries Plc and R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Company, were released under a $6.6 billion settlement with the state of Minnesota.
The documents, which go up to 1994, revealed the companies' knowledge of the health hazards and addictiveness of smoking.
Now available on various Web sites, the documents are part of a $20 billion lawsuit filed by the U.S. Justice Department last month alleging racketeering by tobacco companies in a bid to recover federal funds spent on sick smokers.
Brundtland, a former Norwegian prime minister who took up the top job at the WHO a year ago, has targeted smoking and called for global steps to control tobacco.
``WHO is deeply concerned about the nature of the evidence in the 35 million documents that have now become available in the public domain,'' said Brundtland, who is a physician.
``I make this decision in the spirit of full and complete transparency, but above all, in the service of public health.''
The WHO says tobacco kills four million people a year through cancer, bronchitis, emphysema and cardiovascular diseases. It predicts the toll will rise by 10 million by 2030, with 70 percent of deaths in developing countries, led by China.
``A cigarette is the only freely available consumer product, which, when regularly consumed as indicated, kills,'' the WHO said.
The inquiry comes two weeks before the WHO sponsors the first negotiations between its 191 member countries on a tobacco ``framework convention,'' due by 2003. Brundtland has called for a pact to target tobacco advertising and subsidies.
Zeltner, a medical doctor and professor, is director of the Swiss Federal Office of Public Health, based in Bern. He also serves on the WHO's 32-member executive board.