In December 2020 the World Health Organization conducted a web-based consultation on a working document to develop a global action plan to better implement the WHO Global Alcohol Strategy. When the submissions were released recently a concerted effort of the alcohol industry became apparent: deploying the Big Tobacco strategy and network where think tanks interfere on behalf of the industries in public health policy making. This mobilization of Big Tobacco’s network to undermine alcohol policy development at the WHO calls into question even more why the alcohol industry is allowed to participate in the first place.

The World Health Organization (WHO) is conducting an extensive consultation process to develop a global alcohol action plan to improve the implementation of the WHO Global Alcohol Strategy. Last December the WHO began with a web-based consultation for “non-state actors” – which unfortunately and controversially also includes the alcohol industry – producers, retailers, marketers of alcohol as well as front groups and think tanks. Recently, the WHO released all the submissions. In total 253 submissions were made, including more than 70 Big Alcohol submissions. A novel development is that around 20 submissions come from neo-liberal, “free market” think tanks.

Concerted action by Big Tobacco think tanks

This is concerning because the same strategy was used by Big Tobacco to delay, derail and destroy public health efforts to better regulate the products and practices of the tobacco industry.

Therefore, I decided to conduct a rapid analysis of who these thinks tanks are and how they are funded. This analysis is an addition to our more profound examination of the submissions of 16 of the biggest Big Alcohol front groups.

What I found surprised and shocked me:

  • 18 think tanks made submissions. I might have missed a few but I hope I’ve identified the vast majority of think tank submissions.
  • All 18 think tanks are actually members of the Atlas Network. 18 out of 18!
  • The think tanks come from 16 different countries.
  • The think tanks come mainly from Europe, and one from Asia and Africa respectively.
  • Many of the think tanks also appear in The Guardian’s analysis of Big Tobacco funding of an entire universe of think tanks.

Some think tanks have received direct tobacco industry funding – as The Guardian’s interactive world map illustrates:

  • Japan Tobacco and British American Tobacco both disclosed they donated to the Austrian Economics Center.
  • British American Tobacco gave more than £10,000 to the Institute of Economic Affairs (UK) in 2011, and £20,000 in 2012, according to disclosures by BAT. The cigarette maker planned to continue funding the IEA at least until 2016.
  • In two annual reports in 2015 and 2016, the Atlas Network disclosed it received donations from British American Tobacco. In 2016, Japan Tobacco International was another donor.
  1. Austrian Economics Center
  2. Bendukidze Free Market Center (Ukraine)
  3. Center for Indonesian Policy Studies
  4. Civil Development Forum (Poland)
  5. Epicenter (Belgium)
  6. Foro Regulación Inteligente (Spain)
  7. Foundation for the Advancement of Liberty (Spain)
  8. Free Market Foundation (Hungary)
  9. Free Trade Europa (Sweden)
  10. Freedom Research Association (Turkey)
  11. Fundacion Civismo (Spain)
  12. Institute of Economic and Social Studies (Slovakia)
  13. Institute of Economic Affairs (UK)
  14. Instituto Bruno Leoni (Italy)
  15. Liberální Institut (Czechia)
  16. Libertania (North Macedonia)
  17. Liberty Sparks (Tanzania)
  18. Prometheus (Germany)

It is remarkable that all these think tanks that submitted responses to the WHO consultation on the global alcohol action plan are members of the Atlas Network. Even if I missed a few think tanks among the list of 253 total submissions, it shows a concerted effort by the network of the tobacco industry to derail and undermine public health oriented alcohol policy development.

The Guardian analysis showed that more than 100 free-market think tanks have lobbied against evidence-based tobacco control policies or accepted donations from the tobacco industry. For example, many of the same think tanks joined forces in 2018 in a campaign against tobacco plain packaging – another scientifically proven public health measure.

Big Tobacco “Strategic Ally” deploys network to undermine alcohol policy development

Internal tobacco industry documents show the Atlas Network has had a longstanding funding relationship with the tobacco industry.

The website Tobacco Tactics describes the Atlas Network in the following way:

The Atlas Network (originally named Atlas Economic Research Foundation) was founded in 1981 by Antony Fisher, who also founded the Institute of Economic Affairs (IEA). It aims to “cultivate” and “strengthen” a global network of partners that promote market-based policy solutions. These partners take the form of right-wing think tanks and public policy-oriented institutes.

Tobacco Tactics,  Tobacco Control Research Group, University of Bath, UK, Last Updated February 7, 2020

The purpose of developing such a massive universe of converging think tanks is to create subtle vehicles for influencing public policy and the deliberations of governments.

Atlas Network members attempt “win the respect of journalists and government officials” and “shift the climate of opinion in favour of market approaches.” They lobby for and push policies that benefit the alcohol and tobacco industries and are detrimental to the health and well-being of people and communities.

Internal tobacco industry documents show the Atlas Network has had a longstanding funding relationship with Big Tobacco.
Tobacco Tactics exposes that the Atlas Network received funding from tobacco industry giants at least since the 1990s. Philip Morris International (PMI) funding to Atlas continued until at least 2001 and was occurring regularly from 1993, among other things for “Tobacco Issues Management”.

By funding multiple think tanks, within a shared network, the tobacco industry was able to generate a conversation among independent policy experts, which reflected its position in tobacco control debates. This demonstrates a coherent strategy by the tobacco industry to work with the Atlas Network to interfere in public health policy making from multiple directions.

What does that mean for alcohol policy development at the WHO?

The Big Tobacco strategy to collaborate with a network of think tanks in order to facilitate tobacco industry influence in public health policy has received much attention in recent years – both from academia, the media, and from community and civil society groups.

  • Already in 2013, The Guardian exposed that “free market”, neo-liberal think tanks such as The Adam Smith Institute and the Institute of Economic Affairs were funded by the tobacco industry.
  • In 2017 a landmark scientific analysis of documents from tobacco companies and think tanks exposed how the Atlas Network acted as a strategic ally to the tobacco industry throughout the 1990s.
  • Tobacco Tactics is a useful resource to expose the universe of Big Tobacco interest groups trying to interfere and shape the public and policy discourse in favor of profit interests of tobacco industry giants.
  • Also in 2017, Vera Da Costa, then the head of the WHO Framework Convention on Tobacco Control Secretariat, wrote that the tobacco industry’s strategies were coming under renewed scrutiny.

In 2005, the nations of the world had come together to agree the WHO Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (FCTC), the global tobacco control treaty. Today it has 182 Parties who have accepted that the practices and products of the tobacco industry cause massive harm to public health. They all agreed a wide range of measures to curb both supply and demand.

One key element of this work concerns the treaty’s Article 5.3, which requires Parties to protect public health policy-making from interference by the tobacco industry. It is unequivocal and rests on the substantial body of evidence that Big Tobacco does indeed interfere to further its own interests. 

Almost every country in the world is committed to implement this Article and its impact is spreading. A historical resolution from the United Nations Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC) calls for UN agencies to develop and implement their own policies on preventing tobacco industry interference. The resolution evokes the model policy on preventing tobacco industry interference, which was developed in the context of the WHO FCTC by the United Nations Inter-Agency Task Force on the Prevention and Control of Non-communicable Diseases. 

This policy stated that:

The United Nations system … must [ensure] a consistent and effective separation between its activities and those of the tobacco industry, to preserve its integrity and reputation and in promoting development. Engagement with the tobacco industry is contrary to the United Nations system’s objectives, fundamental principles and values.”

The policy is clear and underlines the importance of rooting out the tobacco industry’s deleterious influence to ensure the achievement of development goals.

We are now faced with an unprecedented effort of the Big Tobacco network to interfere in WHO’s alcohol policy development process. Member States have called for alcohol harm to be made a “public health priority” and have requested “accelerated action”. But the apparent mobilization of Big Tobacco strategies, resources and networks in support of Big Alcohol and common profit interests is a direct threat and serious challenge to the mandate WHO has received from its member states.

It has long been known that Big Alcohol and Big Tobacco are big buddies, maintaining deep institutional ties, close personal links and sharing significant profit interests in their products.

In my opinion there are four conclusions:

  1. The World Health Organization needs to ensure that groups with ties to the tobacco industry are barred from engaging in any WHO process, no matter if it is tobacco control related or not. Groups such as the think tanks in question are part of the network of the tobacco industry and in my opinion their engagement with WHO or any other UN agency is precluded by the model policy evoked by the UN ECOSOC resolution.
  2. As the case of the current WHO alcohol policy consultation shows, there is a need for critical analysis of the influence that think tanks connected to Big Tobacco exert on other health policy sectors.
  3. It is also necessary to ensure much greater transparency of the funding think tanks receive and other links to vested interests that they might entertain. This would help WHO and other UN agencies and programs to determine and protect against conflicts of interest and undue interference.
  4. It is time to reconsider the role Big Alcohol is given in the WHO Global Alcohol Strategy and in the work of the World Health Organization to implement its Global Alcohol Strategy. With Big Alcohol, the tobacco industry is always at the table, too. Engagement with the alcohol industry clearly threatens the integrity and reputation and in promoting health and development for all.

WHO in particular and the UN in general must ensure a consistent and effective separation between its activities and those of the alcohol industry. Engagement with the alcohol industry is contrary to the United Nations system’s objectives, fundamental principles and values.

In the immediate future it is important to protect the WHO consultation process from interference by health harmful industries, including Big Tobacco. And cases like this make it painfully obvious why a global binding treaty on alcohol needs to be developed in the future.