health & science
Smoking researcher shunned over Philip Morris funding
Guyon Espiner on the indigenous smoking researcher being shunned for taking funding indirectly from Big Tobacco. This story was first published on rnz.co.nz and is republished here with permission.
A finalist for New Zealander of the Year for her work with Māori smokers is at war with academics because her research is funded by tobacco giant Philip Morris.
Marewa Glover set up the Centre for Research Excellence: Indigenous Sovereignty and Smoking in 2018 and in just one year has received $1.5 million from the US-based Foundation for a Smoke Free World - the third-largest grant the foundation has distributed anywhere in the world so far. Her centre could receive millions more.
But the foundation's sole source of funding is the tobacco company Philip Morris, which has pledged $1.5 billion to the organisation over 12 years.
The World Health Organisation has blacklisted the foundation and researchers around the world are shunning its money, seeing it as a PR strategy for a killer industry to gain legitimacy.
Now New Zealand tobacco control academics want Glover shut out of the public health system here. Emails obtained during an RNZ investigation show researchers at Otago University have tried to stop district health boards (DHBs) working with Glover, suggesting she is compromised by the Philip Morris money. Glover is a strong advocate of vaping - products Philip Morris and other tobacco companies are moving into as their traditional markets are threatened - and believes the devices have made quit smoking programmes redundant.
The documents show the Otago researchers became alarmed when Glover made finalist for New Zealander of the Year and discussed telling the judging panel her centre was financed by money sourced from Philip Morris.
But at least two DHBs have invited her to speak at their events despite knowing the source of her funding. After inquiries by RNZ the Ministry of Health is now warning DHBs it would prefer they not work with the centre.
Hāpai te Hauora, which holds the national tobacco control contract, also says it cannot work with Glover. It respects her expertise on Māori smoking cessation - and has a shared cause in seeing vaping as a valid option - but says the source of funding leaves it no choice but to cut ties.
Glover says it's Māori women who will miss out on her expertise, as they have the highest smoking rates in New Zealand at 37 percent - nearly three times the rate for the general population.
What she sees are competitors threatened by her different approach. "They want to silence me," she says. "They've got to discredit me because it undermines their singing from the same song sheet and I'm singing a different song and it's like, shoot that bird."
Working out of a converted shop, adorned with a Māori motif and tucked away in a Torbay village on Auckland's North Shore, Glover has set the cat among the pigeons in New Zealand's tobacco control community.
She's worked in tobacco control for 25 years, most recently as Professor of Public Health at Massey University. But she's a very different character from her former academic colleagues and moves in different circles.
She's been a long-term friend of Carrick Graham, who has worked as a lobbyist in the tobacco industry. In an email Graham, whose PR tactics were exposed in the book Dirty Politics, said he had known Glover for years. He still does "a little bit of work" for Glover and believes she does "amazing work in this harm reduction space".
They met when Graham enrolled as a student in her tobacco control lectures at Auckland University. "After I had left BAT (British American Tobacco) I saw she was running a tobacco control course at Auckland Uni and somewhat cheekily, I enrolled," Graham said. Glover defended Graham from the outrage of fellow students and they remain friends.
Glover is critical of much mainstream thinking on tobacco control, which she believes hasn't delivered for Māori. She opposes the steep rise in excise tax, which harvests nearly $2bn a year and prices cigarettes above $30 a packet. She was in the media most recently opposing the ban on smoking in cars, saying it will criminalise Māori smokers who can't afford the fine. She believes too much focus goes on stopping young people smoking and the emphasis should be on pregnant women.
"The damage from smoking comes from smoking every day, many times a day, many years," she says. "Young people are not at immediate risk and there is no harm. And meanwhile, over here, there's a whole lot of people who have been smoking for quite a long time. I want us to work with them." She also says pregnant women should consider vaping if they cannot give up combustible cigarettes.
Some of this is controversial to her public health colleagues. But where they really part ways is over her funding. The way she sees it, her money doesn't come from the tobacco industry but from the Foundation for a Smoke Free World. "If I get funding from the Heart Foundation or the Cancer Society I don't ask to see who gave them money," she says. "I've had a research grant from Lottery Health - so that's gambling money."
At first she's unequivocal. "I'm definitely not taking money from a tobacco company." Then, a small concession. "Obviously, I know that [Philip Morris] is their primary donor that established them." When it's pointed out that, in fact, Philip Morris is the only donor to the foundation she says, "I don't know that." But the foundation's tax records show Philip Morris is the sole funder. And so she relents. "From that, it looks like so far that has been their only donor."
But Glover does not for a second believe she is compromised. "The Foundation for a Smoke Free World and myself, I mean, I can attack their product all I want." So does she? "Ah... I'd rather not talk about them at all," she says. "If I even say the word ... I just get attacked."
The attacks have included scorn from some in the indigenous community she claims to want to help. In a paper for the Tobacco Control journal, 13 indigenous researchers from around the world, led by Otago University's Anaru Wā, said the foundation was complicit in the harm smoking causes to indigenous people. "Arguably, PMI [Philip Morris International] funds the foundation to create divisions among those who are working towards a smoke free world."
Whether or not that is the intention, the divisions are stark. Clive Bates, a UK-based public health advocate for tobacco control, called the paper a "baseless attack on a valuable initiative". He said Glover was an excellent leader and proposed a "more imaginative" view of her centre, the foundation and PMI. "Due to a major technology disruption … some tobacco companies are now repositioning themselves in a way that will be beneficial for public health despite their ongoing participation in the cigarette business."
That's a charitable view according to Michel Legendre, who closely tracks tobacco tactics as campaign director at the US-based NGO, Corporate Accountability. Speaking to RNZ from Boston, Legendre says the foundation is a "brilliant and an egregious ploy" by big tobacco.
"They've been shut out of practically every decision-making body they've historically used to undermine public health policy," he says. "Through the foundation, PMI is trying to now push pro-tobacco policy, peddle a new package for its oldest product, nicotine, and try to better the industry's public image - all while claiming to have people's best interest and public health in mind."
Glover has fired back. After she heard that tobacco control academics at Otago University were criticising her, she hired law firm Anderson Creagh Lai to file an Official Information Act request to find out what they were saying about her.
The emails, also obtained by RNZ under the OIA, show George Thomson of Otago University's Department of Public Health wrote to MidCentral DHB after seeing that Glover was to speak at a vaping event co-sponsored by the DHB. In the advertisement Glover was billed as a "vaping researcher" formerly of Massey University School of Public Health.
Thomson told the DHB that the World Health Organisation had asked governments and public health bodies not to work with the foundation. DHB chief executive Kathryn Cook replied that the DHB "does not have a policy" on relations with the tobacco industry, but acknowledged it "has a vested interest in maintaining people's addiction to nicotine" with vaping products.
While the DHB knew the source of Glover's funding, it was happy to let her speak, because smoking cessation efforts had stalled and it wanted to explore alternatives like vaping.
Bay of Plenty DHB also asked Glover to speak at a smoke free strategy day. Thomson was invited to share the stage with her but the emails show he declined. "I would not appear as a speaker at any meeting where people funded by the tobacco industry were invited as speakers."
In an interview with RNZ, Thomson said tobacco was a product that killed half its customers. "It's very difficult to see, when you take money from them, that you escape the problem of being complicit in their activities." He says people who accept tobacco industry money have no place in public health. "You can't really have people funded by the tobacco industry working in the same room," he says. "It doesn't gel. You can't be funded by the tobacco industry to save lives."
In January this year, Marewa Glover was named one of three finalists for the KiwiBank New Zealander of the Year.
There was no mention of Philip Morris in the press release but there was in the email chatter of the public health community in New Zealand and in Australia too.
Emails released under the OIA show Kylie Lindorff from Cancer Council Victoria alerted Shane Kawenata Bradbrook, a long-term advocate for smoke-free Māori communities. "Assume you've seen this? Apparently Marewa is down to the final three for NZLder of the year?!?! Incredible," she wrote. "Any chance someone could [tell] the selection panel ... she has accepted tobacco industry funding?" Bradbrook called on Anaru Wā, who co-wrote the paper criticising Glover's centre, asking for Otago University to send their concerns.
"How far will these people go?" Glover asks in an interview at her research centre. "They want to contact KiwiBank and try and convince them to rescind my becoming a finalist in New Zealander of the Year? And of course, that was before the awards had been given out. So that's going pretty far."
But Thomson says transparency in relations with the tobacco industry is vital. There is no mention of Philip Morris on Glover's website or in her press releases. A report her centre commissioned from NZIER on Māori spending on tobacco, alcohol and gambling, says it was funded by a grant from the foundation, but makes no reference to Philip Morris. "We really do need a truth campaign and a wider set of policies about associations with the tobacco industry," Thomson says.
Emails show the Otago University academics also discussed whether Glover would get ethics approval for research once the funding source was known. "I've spoken to a few people about ethical approval for any work the centre does and doesn't [look] like any NZ ethics committees would sign it off," Anaru Wā writes in one of the emails.
Glover interprets this as the academics trying to "sabotage my work going ahead". She says she has got approval for one project, although she won't give details. "I could see that the ethics committee was struggling. We had intense conversations and they also asked the same questions you've been asking me about the money and about the funding."
Other doors are closing. Glover says she has been a member of the Society for Research on Nicotine and Tobacco for many years. They have just established an Oceania branch which has its first conference in Australia in October. But Glover is locked out. "Nobody from the foundation, or funded by the foundation or tobacco companies, can speak at those conferences."
This conflict between tobacco control advocates is part of the industry's playbook, according to Michel Legendre from Corporate Accountability. On the surface, the foundation poses a problem for regulators and public health because it claims to be part of the solution, he says. "No academic, public health or governmental entity should be accepting funds from big tobacco and after millions of pages of internal documents from PMI were released, exposing the decades of abusive tactics, nearly all institutions chose to be on the right side of history."
But Glover believes it is her on the right side of history. She's put in another bid for millions of dollars more in long-term funding from the Foundation for a Smoke Free World and says it allows her to work on saving the lives of indigenous people.
Her work at the centre so far follows her pattern of working outside the mainstream. She has just released a short film, Tiakina Wāhine Hapū, or Nurturing Women in Pregnancy. Glover, and at least one media report, describe it as an award-winning film. It did win two awards at the Global Nicotine Forum (GNF) in Poland this year. The GNF has provided a platform for the tobacco industry to promote its vaping products. PMI promotes it as the "only international conference to focus on the role of safer nicotine products that help people switch from smoking". Glover attended this year's GNF conference in Warsaw and shared the stage with Moira Gilchrist, head of scientific and public communications at Philip Morris.
But Glover insists the foundation that funds her centre is independent of PMI and that its constitution precludes the tobacco industry influencing how it spends its money. In fact, she says she is more independent now than when she was working for a university.
"I now don't have any Pākehā boss over me who can come along and say, just pull back from that," she says. "A lot of indigenous organisations, given the struggle we have to get funding to do kaupapa Māori work ... the crumbs we get off the table. At the end of the day, sometimes it's pragmatics. You need to get money. You need to get money from somewhere."