BANGKOK, Thailand — Two of the world's largest tobacco companies, seeking to expand sales into Asia, worked to undermine anti-smoking policies in Thailand and China by infiltrating one research institute and funding another, researchers said Tuesday.
The allegations _ highlighted in two separate studies _ come as tobacco companies are aggressively marketing cigarettes in the developing world as lawsuits and anti-smoking laws hit revenues in the West.
"As the high income countries put more and more obstacles in the path of the cigarette companies, they have to look for new markets," said Edouard Tursan d'Espaignet, epidemiologist with the WHO's Tobacco Free Initiative.
Critics said tobacco companies are trying to drum up sales by minimizing the dangers of smoking.
In Thailand, Philip Morris, the world largest cigarette maker, planted a scientist in Chulabhorn Research Institute in Bangkok in a bid to get researchers to shift their attention away from secondhand smoking and toward other forms of air pollution, according to one study. Public health researchers from the University of Sydney and the University of Edinburgh produced the study by analyzing internal industry documents made public following litigation in the United States.
A separate study alleges that British American Tobacco, the world's second-largest firm, provided funding in China for the Beijing Liver Foundation in a campaign to shift focus away from links between smoking and ailments such as liver disease.
Both companies denied the charges presented online in the Public Library of Science Medicine journal. The two studies were partly funded by the National Cancer Institute in the U.S.
However, longtime anti-smoking advocate Stanton Glanz said the tactics are "part of long-running and continuing tactics by the tobacco industry all over the world," and he called on the two Asian institutions to end their ties with the industry.
Anti-smoking groups say big tobacco for years has sought to covertly influence western government's smoking policies and squash scientific findings highlighting hazards of smoking.
Now, some charge, the tobacco countries are taking these time-tested tactics to the Asia, Africa and Latin America where the WHO estimates 80 percent of the 8 million tobacco-related deaths will occur by 2030.
The University of Sydney's Ross MacKenzie, who co-authored the Thai study, said that in Asia, tobacco companies have fought successfully to prevent the publication of ingredients used in their products in Thailand and worked in Cambodia to undermine advertising bans.
"They have shown they are willing to take advantage of economic situations and lax legislation in many Southeast Asian countries to aggressively market their products," MacKenzie said, citing previously released company documents.
In the Thai study, MacKenzie and University of Edinburgh's Jeff Collin allege that Philip Morris scientist Roger Walk lectured and organized conferences at the government-funded Chulabhorn from the early 1990s through 2006.
The researchers say this allowed Philip Morris to develop relationships with key officials and scientists in efforts to discount the threat of secondhand smoke.
Spokeswoman Marija Sepic of Switzerland-based Philip Morris International _ which was spun off by the Altria Group in the United States earlier this year _ dismissed the documents as outdated and said the company never hid its affiliation with Walk.
Walk, who now works for Altria's Philip Morris USA unit, could not be reached for comment.
Chulabhorn Associate Vice President Jutamaad Satayavivad said the institute was not aware Walk worked for Philip Morris until about a decade into his tenure. After seeing the study, institute officials plan to bar him because he was "not straightforward in sharing with us," she said.
The other study alleges that London-based British American Tobacco used the Beijing Liver Foundation to lobby China's Health Ministry in a campaign to forestall smoke-free legislation.
The company also provided training for industry, public officials and the media to spread its message that secondhand smoke was an insignificant source of pollution, it said.
"Despite the tobacco industry's public efforts to appear socially responsible ... there is a fundamental conflict between the interests of tobacco companies and public health," said the Mayo Clinic's Monique E. Muggli, who conducted the study with four other researchers.
China's Health Ministry did not immediately respond to a faxed request for comment.
British American Tobacco spokeswoman Catherine Armstrong said it was illogical to suggest that any link the company has to a medical charity "was an attempt to divert attention away from smoking related disease."
However, Glanz, a University of California San Fransico professor who has led research into secondhand smoke, said he's not surprised to hear the studies' results.
Asia is particularly attractive to tobacco companies because "understanding of the effects of smoking and passive smoking is low," Glanz said.
On the Net:
British American Tobacco documents: http://bat.library.ucsf.edu
Legacy Tobacco Documents Online: http://legacy.library.ucsf.edu/