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Philip Morris lobbying to stop WHO ‘attack’ on vapes and similar products

Philip Morris International (PMI), the tobacco and vaping company behind Marlboro cigarettes, is waging a big lobbying campaign to prevent countries from cracking down on vapes and similar products as part of a global treaty, a leaked email reveals.

The company, which has been increasingly focusing on smoke-free products as governments tighten regulations on cigarettes, made $10.19bn (£8.3bn) in revenues from products such as heated tobacco and electronic cigarettes in 2022.

In a message sent by the PMI’s senior vice-president of external affairs last month and seen by the Guardian, staff were told to find “any connection, any lead, whether political or technical” before a meeting of delegates from 182 countries. He described the agenda for the meeting of the World Health Organization as a “prohibitionist attack” on smoke-free products.

There is growing scrutiny of vaping products, with ministers in the UK taking the first step towards banning candy-coloured disposable e-cigarettes in England. A consultation has been launched on plans to crack down on vaping by young people and ban smoking altogether, to create the first “smoke-free generation”. The health secretary, Steve Barclay, said this month he was concerned about figures that showed the number of children who vaped had tripled in the past three years.

The WHO framework convention on tobacco control (FCTC), which takes place next month in Panama, will discuss possible regulation, including taxation, on smoke-free products.

In the email, PMI suggested it had seen the agenda for the convention, which focused on smoke-free products. In 2016, the tobacco company announced a transformation of its business away from cigarettes and set itself an objective to replace them with heated tobacco products, e-vapour products and nicotine pouches.

In 2022, PMI shipped 621bn cigarettes, according to its annual results. However, about a third of its revenues were derived from smoke-free products, while the volume of combustible tobacco products decreased by 27%.

Its vaping and heated tobacco brands include IQOS, Bonds and Veev and it launched its first disposable device in the UK this year, the Veeba.

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The email sent on 22 September by Grégoire Verdeaux, the senior vice-president of external affairs at PMI, said: “The agenda and meeting documents have been made public for the main part. Unfortunately they reconfirmed every concern we had that this conference may remain as the biggest missed opportunity ever in tobacco control’s history … WHO’s agenda is nothing short of a systematic, methodical, prohibitionist attack on smoke-free products.”

Without “reasonable, constructive outcomes” , Verdeaux wrote, the “WHO will have irreversibly compromised the historic opportunity for public health presented by the recognition that smoke-free products, appropriately regulated, can accelerate the decline of smoking rates faster than tobacco control combined”.

He said that for the last 18 months his company had worked to “leverage the right support” at the meeting, but added: “At this stage we are not where we would like to be – in terms of intelligence, positions and delegations.” Verdeaux said that when they were “truly determined” then they managed to “move the needle”. He urged: “There is still time.”

The email continued: “So this message to ask you, as lead of the EA [external affairs] function, to do that last-minute effort. Every country, regardless of its size, matters”. Verdeaux said it was ready “to put up any connection, any lead, whether political or technical, including those from our local business partners” who often were “mission critical in our smaller markets”.

Tobacco companies are not invited to the event and Verdeaux said despite this he would be in Panama “to publicly denounce the absurdity of being excluded from it while PMI today” was “undoubtedly the most helpful private partner WHO could have in the fight against smoking”. He ended the email: “Whatever happens we are on the right side of history. But it will be a small comfort if we let prohibitionists have it their way.”

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“Time is of the essence”, he said, and the consequences for adult smokers and “our business would be material”.

Asked about the leaked email, Verdeaux said in a statement: “What I say publicly and what I say to our employees is exactly the same: I am proud to make the case to governments and media that innovation drives down smoking rates faster and for that reason should be supported and regulated. The WHO FCTC conference is held behind closed doors but should be an open forum where scientists, consumers and companies are also heard. I’ll be on site in Panama and gladly invite anyone to discuss this publicly with me.”

There has been growing concern about the rising number of young people using e-cigarettes. In the UK, leading doctors and councils have welcomed reports that ministers are preparing to ban single-use vapes.

Prof Steve Turner, registrar for the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health, said his UK colleagues were “really worried” about young people vaping. He added that vapes were an “effective entry into nicotine addiction and smoking”. The situation was “a public health disaster” and “children should not be becoming addicted to nicotine”, he said.

Australia has banned all vaping without a prescription, Germany prohibited flavoured e-cigarettes and New Zealand outlawed most disposable vapes and put curbs on marketing to children. This month, France also announced it is planning to ban all disposable e-cigarettes.