Below is a press release published today, 6 November 2016, with a wide range of health and international development organisations. It may mark a turning point in the fight to weaken the influence of Big Tobacco over the tax policies which are critical to save millions of lives in lower-income countries. The focus is on ITIC, a think tank which has claimed association with all manner of international organisations and global companies – while playing an important role for tobacco companies, as the WHO Secretary-General recently highlighted.
Update: covered on 7 November in the Financial Times: Nestlé and the World Bank are among a number of organisations to demand that a controversial lobby group for tobacco companies stops claiming links to them.
‘International Tax and Investment Center’ (ITIC) forced to withdraw claims of association with World Bank, IMF, tax authorities and major multinationals
[London] Today, an unprecedented joint movement of leading international development and public health organisations including the British Heart Foundation, Cancer Research, Christian Aid and Save the Children, declared a major success in their campaign against the tobacco lobby.
For more than two decades, big tobacco companies have used the neutral-sounding ‘International Tax and Investment Center’ (ITIC) to promote their agenda around the world. Since tax policies are the single most powerful measure to reduce tobacco consumption, and the inevitable deaths that follow, the influence of ITIC on public officials and finance ministers has the potential to be – quite literally – a killer. ITIC has targeted developing countries as the major growth markets for tobacco; it is in these countries where the death toll will be greatest, if the tobacco lobby succeeds.
Central to ITIC’s credibility with policymakers is the claim that it works closely with leading international organisations, multinationals and global professional services firms. The campaign to expose ITIC as a front for tobacco interests has been coordinated by the Tax Justice Network, ASH (UK) and the FCA. They contacted all the groups named by ITIC, described the ITIC’s role as a lobbyist for tobacco and asked the groups to disassociate themselves from ITIC. The letter that was sent can be viewed here.
The organisations that responded overwhelmingly expressed support for the the campaign to counter big tobacco’s tax lobbying efforts, and in many cases outlined their dismay at the claims made by ITIC.
Previously, ITIC regularly claimed – including on the very front of their website – that “ITIC works closely with ministries of finance, customs services and tax authorities in 85 countries, as well as international financial institutions such as the International Monetary Fund, World Bank, World Customs Organization, and Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.”
Timothy Evans, writing on behalf of World Bank president Dr Jim Yong Kim, said:
“I am writing to confirm that the World Bank Group (WBG) does not have a formal partnership with ITIC. We have, in fact, previously contacted ITIC (on November 29 and December 1, 2015), requesting that they remove the name of the World Bank Group from their homepage, and also remove the World Bank Group’s logo from several other pages and PDFs on their website. I am pleased to note that this request has been complied with by the ITIC… I appreciate all of your strong advocacy for better global public health policy on tobacco, which has been extremely important to ensure better regulation of tobacco and to save lives. We look forward to working together towards the same goals.”
The International Monetary Fund stopped short of full disassociation, but wrote: “We understand your concerns with the work of the ITIC on tobacco… [W]e have asked them to clarify the nature of our interactions with them on their website.”
This involved, again, the removal of nearly all references and above all the claim on the site’s front page of ‘working closely together’. The World Customs Organisation wrote that “ITIC is not a partner”, and references have also since been deleted from the ITIC website (except a quote from 2011).
Perhaps most damning of all was the response from the African Tax Administrators’ Forum (ATAF), a key regional body, whose executive secretary Logan Wort said:
“Allow me to state categorically that ATAF does not partner, cooperate nor collaborate with the ITIC in any way, and has no intention of doing so. Officials of the ATAF Secretariat had attended two of its meetings a few years ago in order to establish its motives and how the organisation functioned, however we soon distanced ourselves from the ITIC, with the ATAF Council also directing the Secretariat to inform all ATAF members of this decision, and warning them against associating with the organisation…
“We are thus well aware of the activities of the organisation and find its objectives and modus operandi to be in direct conflict with everything that ATAF stands for. In recent discussions with officials of the World Health Organisation, we were also in full agreement that higher taxes are particularly effective in reducing tobacco use among vulnerable populations.
“We had also requested the ITIC to remove the ATAF logo from its website and all of its publications. Should we find that the ITIC has continued to abuse our logo or (mis)informed stakeholders of any association or partnership between our respective organisations, we will demand, in the strongest of terms, that they desist with this practice. Rest assured of our full support for this campaign.”
ITIC’s claimed ‘sponsors’
Before the campaign to counter big tobacco’s tax lobbying efforts, ITIC listed around a hundred multinationals, global professional services firms and national authorities on its roster of sponsors. While some have told the campaign they will continue with their support, such has been the response that ITIC has now removed the list entirely from their website – so it is no longer possible to see which supporters remain.
Nestlé said that it had ceased to make any contribution to ITIC in 2014, but that the letter had drawn their attention to the fact Nestlé’s logo was still displayed on ITIC’s website, so “we have taken action on this.” Similarly, the law firm Pinsent Masons said there was “no on-going relationship with ITIC, having last engaged with the organisation in 2013.” The Qatar Financial Center thanked the campaign for highlighting the claims on the ITIC website, and said: “we will write to ITIC formally to request the immediate removal of our name from their list of sponsors and any promotional materials or publications; we will also consult with Qatar’s Ministry of Finance on any further action that needs to be taken.”
However, Carlsberg told campaigners: “we do not plan to participate in the activities mentioned in your letter. We have our policy of Responsible Drinking and other projects are beyond our plans.” IBM said: “The policy issues discussed in your letter fall outside the scope of, and do not directly impact, IBM’s business.”
ITIC’s approach has often involved working with or funding existing think tanks or research centres, in order both to draw on their credibility and in some cases to generate new findings that support the case against strong tobacco tax measures – notably, by suggesting that high tobacco taxes will simply lead to growth in illicit trade. Most prominent amongst these has been Oxford Economics, whose chair Adrian Cooper told campaigners in May: “I can assure you that we consider all such representations very seriously and we will table your letter for a discussion with our Board.” Subsequent requests for an update or Board response have not been replied to.
Deborah Arnott, chief executive of Action on Smoking and Health (ASH UK), said: “This is a fantastic victory. For years, this tobacco industry-funded tax think tank has bolstered its credibility by claiming the support of major global organisations – and now those claims have been revealed as completely hollow. We should no longer be surprised at the tobacco companies being liberal with the truth, but the willingness to misrepresent relationships is still striking. Nobody should take this outfit or its claims seriously – least of all, public officials.”
Dereje Alemayehu, chair of the Global Alliance for Tax Justice (GATJ), said: “For developing country policymakers, the claim of working closely with the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank carry a great deal of weight. Now these organisations have demanded that ITIC stop making these misleading statements, people can see the true picture – that this is just one more lobby group, pretending to offer technical analysis but really just pushing an agenda. And a particularly poisonous agenda at that.”
Mary Assunta, Senior Policy Advisor of the Southeast Asia Tobacco Control Alliance (SEATCA), said: “We need to expose how the tobacco industry funds third parties to do its lobbying. Every lobbying success of Big Tobacco causes a delay in life-saving measures in developing countries. This wave of public disassociations should send a clear message to the ITIC that being a spokesperson for the tobacco industry runs counter to global movement to reduce tobacco use.”
Alex Cobham of the Tax Justice Network said: “If current trends persist, tobacco will kill more than 8 million people worldwide annually by the year 2030, with 80 percent of these deaths in low- and middle-income countries. If ITIC’s loss of credibility undermines their ability to influence for Big Tobacco, in a way that reduces that by just 5%, it would save 400,000 lives a year.”
 Quotation from ITIC website as at 18 November 2015, currently available in archive from: http://web.archive.org/web/20151118225508/http://www.iticnet.org/.
 Quotations from ITIC website as accessed at 8 July 2016.
Additional notes for editors
- The organisations involved in the campaign to counter big tobacco’s tax lobbying efforts are: Action on Smoking and Health, (UK); Action on Smoking & Health, USA; Action on Smoking and Health, Scotland; African Tobacco Control Alliance; Association of Directors of Public Health, UK; British Heart Foundation; British Lung Foundation; CAFOD; Cancer Research UK; Christian Aid; Faculty of Public Health, UK; Framework Convention Alliance; FRESH; Global Alliance for Tax Justice; Health Poverty Action; InterAmerican Heart Foundation; International Union Against Tuberculosis and Lung Disease; Latindadd; Save the Children; Southeast Asia Tobacco Control Alliance (SEATCA); Tax Justice Europe; Tax Justice Network; Tax Justice Network – Africa; and Vital Strategies.
- This press release and the original letter sent to companies and organisations can be accessed at http://taxtobacco.org.
Alex Cobham, Tax Justice Network: +44 7982 236863 and firstname.lastname@example.org
Deborah Arnott, ASH (UK): +44 7976 935 987 and email@example.com