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A study in contrasts

This year’s Global Tobacco & Nicotine Forum (GTNF), which took place Sept. 27–29 in Brussels, once again set new standards for tobacco-related events. Not only did the gathering attract speakers of an unprecedented caliber, but the forum also broke ground in terms of transparency. As in the past, the organizers had invited representatives of the mainstream press, but contrary to previous GTNFs, this year’s event took place without the Chatham House Rule, which meant participants were free to publicize and attribute information obtained during the forum.

The openness of the GTNF stood in stark contrast to the shroud of secrecy surrounding the seventh Conference of Parties (COP7) to the World Health Organization’s (WHO) Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (FCTC) in Delhi last month. Even as it claimed progress toward becoming a more transparent and accountable organization, the WHO once again evicted public and press from the COP discussions, leaving legitimate stakeholders no option but to speculate on the procedures behind the policies.

Such secrecy is not just unfortunate; it is also unnecessary. As the GTNF experience demonstrated, those who act in good faith have nothing to fear from openness. Of course, inviting the mainstream press presents the risk of negative publicity, especially to an industry as reputationally challenged as tobacco. And, sure enough, there were plenty of critical notes in the ensuing coverage. However, the risks are outweighed by the opportunity for the industry to explain its positions and correct common misperceptions.

Those still uncomfortable with scrutiny can take heart from the fact that, in an open environment, misinformation and inaccurate reporting are exposed quickly. For example, following the forum, The Times of London published reports suggesting that several academics who had taken part in the GTNF were on the tobacco industry’s payroll. The targeted health experts protested loudly, and The Times was forced to print a humbling apology.

Confident of the industry’s position, the GTNF will continue in the spirit of openness. The 2017 event will again include non-industry participants and representatives of the mainstream press. In the meantime, one can only hope that the FCTC, too, will gain the confidence required to expose its inner workings. So, at this risk of sounding hopelessly naive, here’s to an inclusive, fully transparent COP8!


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