GENEVA - In its continuing war against Big Tobacco, the World Health Organization has just fired another round. Although the war is far from over, the WHO's recent report about how Big Tobacco has tried to subvert it will lower yet further the tobacco industry in the eyes of the general public.
The product of a blue-ribbon investigating committee led by Swiss Surgeon General Dr. Thomas Zeltner, "Tobacco Company Strategies to Undermine Tobacco Control Activities at the World Health Organization" makes interesting reading, but in view of what came out of the Minnesota trials in 1998, much of it is predictable with one chilling exception.
Chapter Eight, in what first appears to be a strange digression, deals with standard-setting for pesticides. In fact, the pesticides in question, grouped together under the acronym EBDC, have been a lifeline for the tobacco industry for many years. Their classification as safe by the WHO has had widespread ramifications throughout the world, most likely negative on all counts except the tobacco companies' balance sheets.
The high stakes were summed up in a 1992 memorandum by scientist Helmut Rief, in the employ of Philip Morris, writing for the company executives: "(1) Fungal diseases are among the most severe problems for tobacco and other crops around the world; (2) the most menacing disease blue mold can only be controlled by a constant application of fungicides; (3) EBDCs are the most widely used fungicides which do not create resistant fungus strains."
Rief then points out that the classification decision of WHO's Joint Meeting on Pesticide Residues would be critical to the future of these chemicals, and, by extension, to the financial health of the tobacco industry. (The joint meeting is sponsored by the WHO and the U.N.'s Food and Agricultural Organization and deals with safety levels of pesticides.)
The warning bells had started ringing in 1989, when the Environmental Protection Agency called into question the whole family of EBDCs by concluding that the chemical byproduct they generate is probably a highly potent human carcinogen.
There were two big problems. The first was that the byproduct seemed to be genotoxic: It damaged genetic material in such a way that would open the door to cancer formation. The second was even more alarming: The EPA could not come up with a "threshold" level below which the byproduct would not cause cancer.
Thoroughly dismayed at the news, Big Tobacco hired a consultant with long ties to the WHO and its international standard-setting bureaucracy, Gaston Vettorazzi, none other than the former head of the WHO's pesticides division. Vettorazzi immediately set about cranking out a series of scientific monographs that essentially denied the EPA's findings when they didn't simply ignore them.
Exploiting his reputation as former section head, Vettorazzi then went back to the WHO, explained that he had numerous clients interested in pesticides (his successor, John Herrman, was led to believe that these were pesticide manufacturers) and that this had led to his doing the monographs as clarification papers.
Herrman, whose division is chronically strapped for funds, like most of the WHO, gratefully took on Vettorazzi as a volunteer, the monographs were liberally distributed to the members of the joint meeting group, and Vettorazzi was eventually made a temporary expert at the joint meeting.
Big Tobacco's umbrella lobby group, not wishing Vettorazzi to be out of pocket, managed to come up with $100,000 for each of his two 18-month stints with them, and Philip Morris graciously contributed $7,000 per month pocket money plus expenses. At no time did Vettorazzi reveal to anybody at the WHO his connection to Big Tobacco.
The climax came when Vettorazzi, as "temporary expert," was invited to participate in the joint meeting session that would review the EBDCs. Rief's claim that the decision was critical was no understatement. If the byproduct was genotoxic and there was no threshold, the chemicals would be withdrawn from the market, and there was no comparable replacement product. Period.
The WHO investigating committee found almost no paper trail for much of Vettorazzi's interactions with the joint meeting people, but the meeting's conclusions mirrored his monographs' contentions, and the EPA evidence was similarly either dismissed offhand or ignored. But that was only the beginning.
The meeting's conclusions were then passed on to the Food and Agriculture Organization's Codex Alimentarius Commission and incorporated into general international standards. These standards are enforced by the World Trade Organization. Thus, if any country were to try to ban the use of EBDCs, it could be brought before the Trade Organization's tribunal and penalized until the ban was lifted and compensation for lost sales paid. (It is indicative of the status of the United Nations standard-setting system that no country has yet challenged the Joint Meeting's decision on the EBDCs, notwithstanding the EPA's findings.)
But there is yet another dimension, beyond the specter of hundreds of thousands of tons of toxic chemicals being sprayed on the good Earth over the years simply because it is profitable to tobacco companies. The use of EBDCs is not limited to tobacco. They are also widely used on food crops and they leave residue on those crops.
Not surprisingly, the investigating committee and Zeltner personally has called for a thorough review of the procedures that led to the joint meeting's decision that the use of EBDCs is safe. There is a further warning about Vettorazzi's dealings with the Codex Alimentarius Commission (which, being beyond the committee's mandate, was not investigated) and the whole way international pesticide safety standards are set.
But there remain other serious problems at the WHO, such as a disclosure policy for those working there, both paid and unpaid. (The committee has suggested the EPA disclosure policy is an example of how to do it right.) In fact, the chapter closes with some 20 recommendations, many quite specific, to avoid in the future such infiltration and devaluation of the WHO's work.
The WHO head, former Norwegian Prime Minister Gro Harlem Brundtland, has duly taken delivery of the committee's work and thanked its members for much hard work well done. What the WHO does with the recommendations remains to be seen.
Robert James Parsons is a Geneva-based journalist who has written previously on depleted uranium.