Document of the Week: Is the U.N. Revisiting the Ban on Big Tobacco?

Outgoing U.N. official pleads a case for the tobacco industry, saying health expertise and cigarette jobs can contribute to global prosperity and improved understanding of health risks.


The United Nations has come a long way since the early days of the 21st century, when nicotine-craving delegates puffed cigarettes and cigars under incongruous “Smoking Discouraged” signs posted in the basement Vienna Cafe at U.N. headquarters. Then-Russian Ambassador Sergei Lavrov, a heavy smoker, took a certain pleasure in flouting failed attempts by former U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan to enforce no-smoking rules on the U.N. headquarters premises.

Foreign dignitaries still assert their sovereign right to smoke at U.N. headquarters on occasion, but U.N. civil servants are now required to take their smokes outside, while top U.N. officials are prohibited from officially participating in any activities with representatives of the tobacco industry, including international initiatives to address the scourge of smoking-related diseases. Still, a quiet lobbying campaign by the industry, which has a large presence in Geneva, to broker a cease-fire with the United Nations may be bearing some fruit.

On his final day on the job, Michael Moller, who stepped down last month as the head of the U.N. office in Geneva, wrote an appeal to U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres suggesting that it may be time to end a moratorium on U.N. cooperation with the tobacco industry. We are sharing his note as our Document of the Week.

“It can be argued that businesses which are legitimate enough to pay taxes to governments should also be legitimate enough to participate in discussions concerning joint efforts to minimize health risks and address other problems of a common nature,” Moller wrote. “There is, thus, a case to be made for considering a more nuanced approach by the UN system vis-à-vis the tobacco industry.”

The memo has fueled suspicions among some U.N. staff that the influence of tobacco giants—including Japan Tobacco International, the owner of Camel and Winston brands (outside of the United States), and Philip Morris International, with a large corporate presence in Geneva—is being felt behind the scenes at the U.N. and the World Health Organization. Long before the U.N. launched its current debate, the U.N. health agency had cited “evidence from tobacco industry documents” demonstrating that “tobacco companies have operated for many years with the deliberate purpose of subverting the efforts of the World Health Organization (WHO) to control tobacco use. The attempted subversion has been elaborate, well financed, sophisticated, and usually invisible.”

More than 1 billion people smoke tobacco, a figure that is expected to persist into 2025. Each year, tobacco contributes to some 8 million deaths worldwide, with secondhand exposure to smoke accounting for 1.2 million of those deaths, according to WHO.

The tobacco industry has been largely shunned by international organizations since 2005, when the WHO Framework Convention on Tobacco Control, a watershed health treaty that aimed to reduce consumption of tobacco, came into force. Since then, WHO and the U.N. have refused to enter into corporate partnerships with the industry. For instance, the U.N. Global Compact, which was launched in 2000 to promote U.N. partnerships with the private sector, has long refused to engage with tobacco companies.

In his note, Moller said the “blanket exclusion” of the entire tobacco industry from international discussions on public health issues, including meetings on noncommunicable diseases, “may be counterproductive to our ambition to deliver” on a set of sustainable development goals (SDGs) aimed at reducing a host of global ills, including poverty, disease, and environmental degradation by the year 2030.

Moller indicated that the tobacco industry—which creates jobs and engages in “highly advanced research efforts to minimize the harmful effects of their own products”—could be part of the solution to promoting prosperity and raising health standards. A core objective of the SDGs, he noted, is to harness the creative and financial support of the business community.

“The DG [director-general] of WHO has made it clear that he is bound by the decision of the Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (FCTC) to totally exclude the tobacco industry form any contact with the UN system,” Moller wrote. “However, the policy question remains as to the appropriateness of this total ban, vis-à-vis the goal of the SDGs to ‘not leave anyone behind.’”

Moller said he had submitted his note to the U.N. chief following discussions with WHO’s director-general and Amina Mohammed, the U.N. deputy secretary-general. Mohammed, he noted, had urged him to raise the matter with the U.N. chief.

In a statement, WHO sought to shoot down any suggestion it would make amends with Big Tobacco.

“There is a fundamental and irreconcilable conflict between the tobacco industry’s interests and public health policy interests,” WHO stated. “Therefore as the only U.N. specialized agency for health, WHO does not engage with the tobacco industry or nonstate actors that work to further the interests of the tobacco industry.”

Farhan Haq, the deputy spokesman for the U.N. secretary-general, said: “Our policy hasn’t changed. On the question of global health, the World Health Organization is the lead U.N. agency, and we follow their leadership.”

David Chikvaidze, who served as Moller’s chief of staff and played a role in drafting the memo, said his former boss had no financial incentive to promote engagement with the tobacco industry. The “main objective” of the memo, he said, was “to raise the question of inclusiveness in implementing the SDGs.”

The memo, he said, was not “an apology for the tobacco or any other particular industry. There is no hidden agenda, political or financial, no behind-the-scenes machinations by ‘closet smokers’ or anything like that.”

Chikvaidze said any suggestion that Mohammed, who is leading the U.N.’s efforts to implement the SDGs, supports a rapprochement with Big Tobacco is “seriously overstating the issue. She merely suggested that the philosophical question was worth raising with the SG [secretary-general], as a ‘think piece’ if you will.”

Colum Lynch is a senior staff writer at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @columlynch