Philip Morris Offers Israeli Medical Students Grants for Attending Lectures

Documents seen by TheMarker detail U.S. tobacco giant’s plans to turn future physicians into a kind of PR agent for the company

A man poses for a photograph while using a Philip Morris iQOS smoking device, in Bogota, Colombia November 14, 2017.
JAIME SALDARRIAGA / REUTERS

Philip Morris, the U.S. tobacco giant, has been making Israeli medical students a tempting offer: 14,000 shekels (about $4,000) in exchange for a year of intensive exposure to corporate informational materials and conferences and lectures.

In other words, Philip Morris wants to turn the students into a kind of PR agent for the company – contrary to the principles of the World Health Organization’s Convention on Tobacco Control that Israel has signed.

An internal document that was shown to TheMarker reveals that in exchange for the scholarship grant the students would agree to commit to 120-130 hours of participation in Philip Morris programs annually. That includes participation in medical conferences in which Philip Morris provides lectures on “The Harmful Effects of Smoking and Technology to Reduce It” and information provided by the company’s research and development units.

At the end of the year, the future physicians are required to present a paper summing up the year of activities. Students are also eligible for an all-expense-paid trip to Philip Morris’s R&D center in Switzerland.

Philip Morris – whose brands include Marlboro, Parliament, L&M and IQOS, products that have caused death and disease to tens of millions of people every year – first approached the Bar-Ilan University Azrieli Faculty of Medicine in the northern town of Safed with the offer about three months ago, which rejected it from the start.

“The dean of the faculty, Prof. Karl Skorecki, thought it was inappropriate to expose our students to the content of this kind of company,” the university said in a statement.

The company then approached the Medical Students Union at the same school with an identical proposal.

Omri Cohen, the union’s chairman, recalled how the offer sounded dubious but also tempting. For purposes of comparison, the grants offered students under work-study programs just 5,200 shekels for the same number of hours. Students, he said, “fight for every shekel” and struggle to find part-time work in the area.

The union invited Philip Morris representatives for a discussion, where they were promised that the program would be under the aegis of a subsidiary company not involved in the burn-based cigarette business. They were not informed that the school’s administration had already rejected the offer.

The union formed a committee to examine the proposal and in the end voted to reject it due to the “moral flaw” involved.

The company didn’t give up and turned to other medical student associations. The National Medical Students Association told TheMarker, “they approached us with a proposal but it was rejected for ethical reasons.”

After being informed by TheMarker about the Philip Morris program, Israel’s Health Ministry and the Israel Medical Association both expressed shock and surprise.

“This is a blatant attempt by a tobacco company to influence students who are at the heart of Israel’s healthcare and public healthcare system of the future,” the ministry said.

“We’re appalled to hear that the tobacco giant is continuing to try and corrupt medical students in Israel in 2019 because it is well known that smoking kills,” said Prof Hagai Levine, chairman of the Israel Association of Public Health Physicians.

“Under the Convention on Tobacco Control and according to health authorities world over, no one should be taking a scholarship from a tobacco company, certainly not medical students. In Israel alone, 8,000 people die every year [from smoking], many of them from Philip Morris products. A student that gets money from a tobacco company is staining his name and professional integrity and limits his future career,” said Levine.

In response, Philip Morris said: “With the goal of reducing the harm from smoking, Philip Morris encourages the existence and accessibility of research and objective science on risk-reducing products for smokers who fail to quit.

“This science was the basis for the U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s decision to approve the sale of its risk-reducing products in the U.S. …. In this framework the company encourages cooperation with universities in Israel and the world and with the students studying in them,” the company said.

In recent years Philip Morris has promoted its new IQOS products as a way of reducing smoking risk compared to ordinary cigarettes, The company claims that it is focusing on products that due less harm, but sales of ordinary cigarettes still make up 95% of its sales and IQOS the rest. Philip Morris controls about 60% of the Israeli tobacco market.

Its efforts to influence medical science are not new. In 1954 tobacco companies set up what was called the Tobacco Industry Research Committee to study the link between smoking and cancer independently. However, internal documents later revealed that it real go was to convince the public there was no danger.

In 2017 pledged almost $1 billion to the fight against traditional burn-based smoking over 12 years to a new non-profit called the Foundation for a Smoke-Free World. But the WHO and other health organizations said they would not take money from the foundation.