A new study of previously confidential tobacco industry documents shows that a Philip Morris scientist established close connections with a WHO Collaborating Centre in Thailand called the Chulabhorn Research Institute (CRI). The study is published in this week's PLoS Medicine.
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). The institute is designated a WHO Collaborating Centre, carrying out activities in support of the WHO's public health programs.
Ross MacKenzie (School of Public Health, University of Sydney, Australia) and Jeff Collin (Centre for International Public Health Policy, University of Edinburgh, Scotland) analyzed tobacco company documents that were made publicly available online following litigation in the United States. Philip Morris documents revealed that ostensibly independent overseas scientists, now identified as industry consultants, were able to gain access to the Thai scientific community. Most significantly, a Philip Morris scientist called Roger Walk 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 Philip Morris within Thailand and across Asia.
The CRI is headed by Professor Dr Her Royal Highness Princess Chulabhorn, the daughter of the King of Thailand. "While sensitivities surrounding royal patronage of the CRI make public criticism extremely difficult," say MacKenzie and Collin, "indications of ongoing involvement by tobacco industry consultants suggest the need for detailed scrutiny of such relationships."
The link between Philip Morris and the CRI found in this study raises the possibility that the tobacco industry is managing to influence medical research and teaching at an academic institution allied with the WHO. 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.
Citation: MacKenzie R, Collin J (2008) "A good personal scientific relationship": Philip Morris scientists and the Chulabhorn Research Institute, Bangkok. PLoS Med 5(12): e238. doi:10.1371/journal.pmed.0050238
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