The International Tax and Investment Center is a self-acclaimed non-profit independent research and education organization. Essentially, the ITIC is a think tank funded by big tobacco companies such as Phillip Morris, Japan Tobacco Industry, British American Tobacco, and Imperial Tobacco, with offices in Washington, D.C., Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, the Philippines, Russia, Ukraine, the United Kingdom, and more countries around the world. Members of PMI, JTI, BAT, and Imperial are all present on the board of the think tank, and are mainly leading the group in lobbying efforts against tobacco tax as well as the recent debate about plain cigarette packaging regulations.
Aside from lobbying efforts, the ITIC has apparently been involved in trying to take down regional tobacco control groups. In July, the Southeast Asia Tobacco Control Alliance (SEATCA), a non-profit alliance that works independently of the World Health Organization to promote a tobacco-free ASEAN (Brunei, Darussalam, Myanmar/Burma, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Philippines, Singapore, Thailand, and Vietnam), received a 36-page letter from Dr. Gary Johns. Dr. Johns is employed by the ITIC to help deter the efforts of critics of the tobacco industry and the ITIC’s goals. The letter is full of false accusations and mischaracterizations of SEATCA, as well as reproachful commentary about the WHO, and the Framework Convention on Tobacco Control parties (FCTC).
In 2012, the ITIC, in conjunction with Oxford Economics, published the Asia-11 Illicit Tobacco Indicator 2012, outlining the illicit cigarette market in eleven Asian countries. A year later, the ITIC published an updated version of the report – Asia-14 Illicit Tobacco Indicator 2014. The reports were published as a sign of good faith, trying to prove Big Tobacco’s detachment from the illicit cigarette market. Soon after, SEATCA published critiques of both these reports. The first critique questioned the reliability and accuracy of the statistics pertaining to illicit consumption in the eleven Asian countries outlined in the first report. SEATCA then published another critique saying that the Asia-14 report failed to provide scientifically proven information, as well as used questionable sources and unbacked data.
Following the publication of SEATCA’s critiques of ITIC’s reports, the ITIC tried to reach out to SEATCA in order to persuade them that the reports were indeed accurate. This happened at the same time that Phillip Morris, under the title of the ITIC, also tried to hold several meetings with Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (FCTC) parties prior to the FCTC held in Moscow in 2014, trying to persuade relevant parties to not vote for WHO’s article 5.3 which would raise tobacco taxes and provide additional healthcare to developing countries – essentially fighting the tobacco addiction that Big Tobacco makes a profit from. As an NGO that works in tobacco control, SEATCA had a seat at the FCTC, so PMI’s efforts to persuade the WHO and UN vote on tobacco tax did not go unnoticed by the alliance, and only proved SEATCA’s claims that ITIC is biased and corrupted.
After the efforts of ITIC and PMI to prevent article 5.3 from passing at the FCTC failed, the ITIC made even more aggressive efforts at proving its worth to SEATCA. In February 2016, the president of ITIC invited the executive director of SEATCA to a round table discussion with “experts” in the tobacco field as well as economists, in an effort to debunk the SEATCA’s critiques of ITIC’s reports. The executive director of SEATCA declined the invitation, refusing to negotiate almost as governments refuse to negotiate with terrorists. ITIC also tried to get through to SEATCA through a Thai tobacco controller, but still SEATCA refused because SEATCA has a long standing strict policy not to engage with Big Tobacco, and ITIC is the epitome of Big Tobacco.
The 36-page letter from Dr. Johns to SEATCA is proof that the ITIC has reached its tipping point, and will now go to new measures to bring SEATCA down and ruin its credibility. SEATCA should be a relatively easy target to Big Tobacco, seeing that it is a non-profit regional tobacco control organization, unaffiliated with the government, who is trying to protect the future health of Southeast Asian nations. However, SEATCA seems to have the upper hand in the fight against Big Tobacco and illicit cigarette smuggling and sales in this instance, most likely due to Big Tobacco’s ties to terrorist organization funding through illicit cigarette sales. SEATCA might be setting precedent in this case, paving the way for other regional control alliances to fight against Big Tobacco in the battle for healthier, tobacco-free communities.