The world’s biggest tobacco firm has been accused of staging “a digraceful PR stunt” by offering to help NHS staff quit smoking to help mark the service’s 70th birthday, The Guardian reports.
Philip Morris International (PMI), which makes Marlboro cigarettes, is under fire for apparently trying to breach global rules which stipulate that tobacco manufacturers should be treated as pariahs.
The company has prompted anger among doctors, MPs and health campaigners by making its offer to all NHS bodies in England, NHS England boss Simon Stevens and health secretary Matt Hancock.
Bob Blackman, the Conservative MP who chairs the all-party group on smoking and health, said he was appalled when learning of the plan. “They have the cheek to say they want to support the 70th anniversary of the NHS, but it’s clearly just a commercial opportunity to use the NHS to promote their heated tobacco products,” he said.
Steve Brine, the public health minister, branded the proposal by the American-owned corporation, which makes six of the world’s 15 best-selling brands of cigarettes, “entirely inappropriate” and said he would tell NHS trusts not to get involved.
“Our aim to make our NHS – and our next generation – smoke-free must be completely separate from the commercial and vested interests of the tobacco industry,” Brine told the Guardian. “Philip Morris International will be well aware that its actions are entirely inappropriate and we will be contacting all NHS trusts to remind them of their obligations.”
Under the World Health Organisation’s Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (FCTC) the governments of countries which are signatories, which include Britain, must ensure that tobacco manufacturers play no role in public health, because their products kill so many people.
The framework’s accompanying guidance said: “Parties should not accept, support or endorse partnerships and non-binding or non-enforceable agreements as well as any voluntary arrangement with the tobacco industry or any entity or person working to further its interests.”
Mark MacGregor, PMI’s director of corporate affairs in the UK and Ireland, said in the letter: “To support the 70th anniversary of the NHS, we are keen to work with you to help the 73,000 NHS employees who currently smoke, to quit cigarettes. This would be a collaborative campaign: you would provide cessation advice for quitting nicotine altogether, and for smokers who do not quit we can help them switch to smoke-free alternatives.”
Paul Burstow, the former Liberal Democrat health minister in the coalition government, has written to Stevens to complain about PMI’s initiative after receiving its letter in his capacity as the chair of the Tavistock and Portman NHS mental health trust in London.
“The proposal PMI is making is merely an attempt to rebrand itself as a socially responsible entity, something parties to the FCTC like the UK should not collude with,” he said. “Any such collaboration with the tobacco industry would be completely inappropriate and a breach of the UK government’s obligations as a party to the WHO FCTC.”
Burstow has asked Stevens to write to NHS trusts to warn them they should ignore PMI’s offer. NHS England refused to say what action, if any, Stevens would take.
The Royal College of Physicians (RCP), which represents hospital doctors, recently estimated that NHS staff who smoke have 56% more days off sick than colleagues who do not, costing the NHS £101m a year and a further £6m in treatment costs.
“This is a disgraceful PR stunt. PMI is pretending partnership would benefit the NHS, when actually it would give them a massive commercial advantage. They could promote their own harm-reduction products as NHS-endorsed,” said Deborah Arnott, the chief executive of the anti-tobacco charity Action on Smoking and Health.
Prof Jane Dacre, the president of the RCP, added: “We are deeply suspicious of the motives of Philip Morris International in their opportunistic attempt to become involved in smoking cessation in hospitals. The NHS needs to be much better at helping patients going to hospital to give up smoking, but it shouldn’t accept help from the tobacco industry.
“The best way Philip Morris could help people stop smoking is to stop making cigarettes altogether.”
In a statement PMI said: “The NHS is a remarkable and respected British institution. However, on current trends, the NHS will be over 100 years old before smoking is at an end in the UK. Quitting smoking is always the best option for NHS workers but we believe we can play a vital role in supporting those who don’t to switch to better alternatives, such as e-cigarettes and heated tobacco.”