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Bloomberg faces mounting pressure to explain funding of Philippines’ FDA

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Anti-tobacco Bloomberg foundation faces mounting pressure to explain the release of funds to the Philippines Food and Drug Administration which international public health experts and tobacco harm reduction advocates said could be tantamount to influencing the decision of the regulator.

University of Ottawa Center for Health Law and Policy advisory committee chair Prof. David Sweanor said the donation made by Bloomberg groups to the Philippines FDA could sway the regulatory agency’s future decisions and take away its independent judgment when it comes to tobacco control. The FDA was tasked to prepare the implementing guidelines for the regulation of electronic cigarettes and heated tobacco products as provided for by two laws.

“It is essential that regulatory bodies have the trust of the public. Accepting foreign funding from sources with a vested interest in compromising the FDA’s independence can rapidly destroy that trust. In this case, the money ultimately comes from a US entity with an abstinence-only agenda on low-risk alternatives to cigarettes,” Sweanor said.

More international experts on public health agree with Sweanor, including former director of Action on Smoking and Health (UK) Clive Bates, National University of Mexico’s Institute of Nuclear Sciences senior researcher Dr. Roberto Sussman, Competitive Enterprise Institute consumer policy analyst Michelle Minton and Sydney, Australia’s St. Vincent’s Hospital Alcohol and Drug Service director Dr. Alex Wodak.

Sweanor made the comment after two Filipino congressmen called for a congressional probe on the Philippines FDA’s acceptance of foreign funding from Bloomberg, which promotes an anti-vaping agenda, in possible breach of the 1987 Constitution and several laws.

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In December last year, Rep. Deogracias Victor Savellano and Rep. Estrellita Suansing filed a resolution directing the House Committee on Good Government and Public Accountability to conduct an inquiry, in aid of legislation, on the alleged “questionable” receipt of private funding by the FDA and other government agencies and institutions in exchange for the issuance of specific and predefined policies against a legitimate industry under Philippine laws and in complete disregard of the rights and welfare of consumers.

The inquiry was prompted by the admission of FDA officials, during a public hearing on Oct. 8, 2020 for the drafting of the general guidelines on the regulation of electronic nicotine delivery systems (e-cigarettes) and heated tobacco products, that agency received funding from The Union and Bloomberg Initiative which are international private groups that advocate against all forms of tobacco products, including ENDS and HTPs.

Sweanor said Bloomberg’s donation should, in fact, be viewed as interference by a foreign party in local regulation.

Bates, a long-standing UK-based tobacco policy expert said, “Governments and their agencies should not take money from Bloomberg’s foundation or the worldwide complex of organizations that it funds. The duty of the Philippines FDA is to look after the welfare of Filipinos, not to take instructions from foreign advocacy operations.”

“Countries around the world need to protect their regulatory agencies from such interference. One can imagine the response of the United States if Philippine money was offered to its FDA to protect unsanitary food from safer options. The Philippines should respond in the same way to a US effort to deny its people access to safer nicotine products,” Sweanor said.

Bates said American financial services billionaire Michael Bloomberg who is using his wealth to promote his beliefs about the prohibition of vaping products and a punitive “quit or die” approach to tobacco policy has very little experience on public health and has no real grasp of the lives of the people involved.

Dr. Sussman noted that Bloomberg’s influence through funding is endemic in low and middle-income countries, “mostly because health ministries become dependent on these funds due to a lack of government funding”.

He said these funds are “typically grants and donations” and are “not accountable, nor scrutinized and their records tend to lie deep below the radar.”

“I hope the example set in the Philippines (House probe on the Bloomberg grant) could spread to other Asian countries and to Latin America and Africa,” He said.

Minton said several US philanthropists have dedicated enormous resources and energy interfering with the politics and policies of other nations.

“More disturbing is the fact that they seem only to care about imposing their moral agenda, regardless of the needs and interests of local populations,” she said.

According to Minton, most of the world’s smokers reside in low- and middle-income nations where access to traditional smoking cessation therapy is limited.

“But American lobby groups continue to pressure authorities in those nations to ban the lower risk nicotine, denying people the choice to switch to products that could spare them from the death and disease caused by smoking. That’s not charity. It is colonialism and a monstrous violation of human rights,” she said.

Dr. Wodak also expressed concern over philanthropic activities in several countries.

“In some countries government and philanthropic behavior is concerning. The analysis is much easier than identifying effective, feasible, reasonable responses,” he said.

Just recently, American Dr. Joel L. Nitzkin, Health policy consultant Scott D. Ballin who previously worked on U.S. FDA regulation of tobacco, and Prof. David Nutt of Imperial College of London who chairs Drug Science called on authorities to take a closer look at the Bloomberg grants to determine if laws were violated in the Philippines and the US.

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