New Gates Foundation Partnership Raises Additional Conflict of Interest Concerns

In a well covered decision in April (see New York Times article, for example), the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation terminated a $5.2 million grant to the International Development Research Center (IDRC) because of an unacceptable conflict of interest. IDRC, a Canadian research center, had originally received the grant to advance tobacco control work in Africa. Unfortunately, the chair of the IDRC Board of Directors also served as a Director of Imperial Tobacco Canada, a subsidiary of British American Tobacco. When this conflict came to light, the Gates Foundation immediately ended the grant (see Gates Foundation statement).

Apparently, such concerns about conflicts of interest do not extend to other areas of the foundation’s work.

Earlier this week the Gates Foundation announced a new health partnership with Carlos Slim, the world’s richest person, in which both partners will donate $50 million to bring basic preventive health care to poor people – especially women and children – in southern Mexico and Central America (see Reuters article).  Slim’s business accomplishments are well known and documented. Unfortunately, he also serves as a board director of Philip Morris International, the parent organization for Altria, the world’s largest tobacco company.

Tobacco use remains a global health crisis. Globally, tobacco use kills 5.4 million people per year (per statement by Physicians for a Smoke-Free Canada).  Health experts estimate that by 2030, tobacco use will claim more than 8 million lives per year with “80 percent of those deaths in developing countries in Africa, Asia and Latin America” (same source). It is the single largest cause of preventable death domestically, with 1,200 people dying every day of an illness attributable to smoking (per American Legacy Foundation Prevention Factsheet).

While the new partnership does not involve a specific tobacco control grant, the tobacco control community has still raised concerns about conflicts of interest. For example, Dr. Simon Chapman (Professor and Director of Research at the Sydney School of Public Health and Commission Editor for Low & Middle Income Countries for the journal Tobacco Control) has raised questions on how “someone with a fiduciary duty to maximise profitability to the world's largest tobacco company can be taken seriously when [saying he is] concerned about health, when tobacco use of course is the single most important cause of ill-health globally.” (June 15, 2010, email posted to GLOBALink.org community)

When the IDRC conflict came to light, tobacco control organizations such as the Southeast Asia Tobacco Control Alliance (SEATCA) – a regional nongovernment organization working to advance tobacco control in Southeast Asia –  raised important concerns noting “a fundamental and irreconcilable conflict between the tobacco industry’s interests and public health policy interests” and a clear need to be accountable and transparent “when dealing with the tobacco industry or those working to further its interests” (June 7, 2010, SEATCA letter to IDRC, released on GLOBALink.org).

The conflicts between global health needs and the tobacco industry’s interests apply to this partnership as well. The Gates Foundation missed a wonderful opportunity to make a more forceful statement on maintaining a clear line of separation between its health work and the tobacco industry. Instead, it has partnered with a key person charged with fostering the long-term success of Philip Morris International and its tobacco business. The tobacco control community would now like to know why the foundation decided to terminate its grant to IDRC but would willingly partner with Carlos Slim.

 

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