GENEVA - The World Health Organization accused big tobacco companies Wednesday of waging a covert campaign to subvert its efforts to reduce smoking, and warned the companies may now try to undermine work on a new global anti-smoking accord.
Tobacco companies Phillip Morris and British American Tobacco denied the WHO accusations, saying their past activities were misrepresented and that they now hope to work constructively with the U.N. health agency.
Swiss health official Thomas Zeltner, who headed a WHO expert panel on the issue, said ''the evidence shows that tobacco companies have operated for many years with the deliberate purpose of subverting the efforts of WHO to control tobacco.''
The WHO report accused the companies of influencing or placing consultants at WHO, who did not declare their links.
It said they used other U.N. agencies - notably the Food and Agriculture Organization - to acquire information on WHO and tried ''well into the 1990s'' to persuade delegates from developing countries to resist anti-tobacco resolutions.
''The attempted subversion has been elaborate, well financed, sophisticated and usually invisible,'' Zeltner said.
The report said tobacco companies funded ''independent'' experts to conduct research, appear at conferences and lobby WHO scientists with the intention of distorting, discrediting or influencing studies.
The four-member panel studied the companies' own documents, made public during a case brought by the state of Minnesota. The documents concerned Philip Morris, BAT, R.J. Reynolds, Brown and Williamson, American Tobacco Company, Lorillard Tobacco Company, the Tobacco Institute and the Council for Tobacco Research.
The tobacco companies' activities ''slowed and undermined effective tobacco control programs around the world,'' the researchers said.
The report highlighted a 1988 meeting of Philip Morris executives at Boca Raton, Fla., which it said drew up an ''action plan'' to attack WHO and its tobacco control programs.
WHO estimates that smoking kills more than 4 million people per year and says the toll may rise to 10 million per year by 2030 because of surging tobacco use in developing countries.
The report urged WHO to monitor the tobacco companies' future conduct as the agency starts work on a global accord to cut cigarette consumption and stem the rising death toll.
Most of the evidence against the tobacco industry predates the current push, Zeltner conceded, but ''it is likely that tobacco companies will attempt to defeat the proposed convention ... or to transform the proposal into a vehicle for weakening national tobacco control initiatives.''
''Such a campaign is likely to be sophisticated and sustained,'' he added.
British American Tobacco said the report ''misrepresents the tobacco industry's legitimate lobbying activity.''
With tobacco companies excluded from policymaking, ''it is only natural and perfectly legitimate for BAT and others to seek to bring more information, sometimes through third parties, to the important debates that take place within the WHO,'' it said in a statement.
It challenged the claim that tobacco industry distorted a 1998 report on the effects of passive smoking, which it said ''quite simply failed to demonstrate any statistically significant increase in nonsmokers' risks.''
Philip Morris said ''inferences of improper influence are not accurate,'' although it said some documents reflect an approach it would not now take toward WHO.
''While many of these documents reflect adversarial positions and often confrontational attitudes on both sides, we do not believe that they substantiate a conclusion that Philip Morris obstructed WHO's health messages about tobacco or its tobacco control initiatives,'' company vice president David Davies said.
On the Net:
World Health Organization http://www.who.int
Documents from the Minnesota case: http://www.pmdocs.com
British American Tobacco http://www.bat.com
Philip Morris http://philipmorris.com/tobacco-bus