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Keynote Focusses on Billionaires and Foundations

The keynote speech at the Global Forum for Nicotine addressed the subject of billionaires and their foundations

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The keynote speech at the Global Forum for Nicotine in Poland was delivered by veteran reporter Marc Gunther, former senior writer at Fortune magazine from 1996 to 2008. Gunther addressed the subject of billionaires and their foundations, utilising knowledge gained from investigating foundations, non-profits and global poverty.

If anyone had told me just two years ago that I was about to write many thousands of words about e-cigarettes and be invited to speak at a conference about nicotine, I definitely wouldn’t have believed it,” said Marc Gunther. “I’m still not sure I could pick a Puffbar or a Fuse out of a line-up of e-cigarettes.”

Gunther realised that the world of foundations and non-profits demanded being looked at. While companies thrive or fail based on their performance and have to conform to tight regulations, the same can’t be said for these other entities.

It’s bad enough with non-profits. A local food bank feeds the poor, but it is funded mostly by well-to-do donors; the quality of its food or service may be good or not so good, but its success depends on winning over those donors, not on satisfying those who it feeds. Advocacy groups like Greenpeace or Amnesty International or the Campaign for Tobacco Free Kids set out to serve the environment or the cause of human rights or the health of kids but they, too, are beholden not to their causes but to their donors. And it’s often very hard — all but impossible, really — to know whether they are effective in the work. It’s much worse with foundations, especially large, endowed foundations. At least non-profit groups have to explain themselves to their donors. Foundation are accountable to no one.”

He continued: “Foundations enjoy generous government benefits. Their endowments are not taxed. They own high-priced real estate in New York or Silicon Valley and they do not pay property taxes. Yet they are regulated so lightly that the rules governing them are all but meaningless. Although they can’t spend money directly on political campaigns, they exercise political power by educating — put that in quotes — elected officials and the generous public. All of this raises a question. How should we think about philanthropy as practiced by big foundations and billionaire donors?”

Which brought Marc Gunther on to the subject of Bloomberg Philanthropies.

Bloomberg “has given away more than $12 billion but like many billionaires, his wealth is increasing faster than he can push money out the door.”

Gunther continued: “I was more than a little surprised to find that the organizations supported by Bloomberg as well as the man himself were saying many things that turned out not to be true. Bloomberg wrote in an op-ed in The New York Times: ‘All the progress we’ve made in reducing teen smoking is being turned around.’ Wrong. Teen smoking rates were falling, and they have continued to fall.

“Bloomberg, on CBS News, said: ‘Just think if your kid was doing this — meaning vaping —  and winds up with an IQ 10 or 15 points lower than he or she would have had for the rest of her life.’ That’s wrong again. No reputable scientist believes that the nicotine in e-cigarettes — or in cigarettes - causes a long-term decline in IQ.

“Other claims by the opponents of vaping turned out to be false as well. No, vaping does not appear to be a gateway to smoking. No, vaping is not —as they claim — ineffective as a smoking cessation tool. No, vaping is not comparable to smoking in terms of its impact on human health.”

Worryingly, despite the bad science, despite the misleading claims, the anti-vaping campaigns have been effective. Gunther points to Bloomberg’s support for Vital Strategies, The Union, and tobacco control work at universities such as the University of Bath.

Most damaging of all, I’d guess, is the relationship between Bloomberg and the World Health Organization. The WHO obviously holds Michael Bloomberg in high esteem—he has been given the title of Global Ambassador for Noncommunicable Diseases. He has in turn generously funded the WHO with many millions of dollars for a variety of projects, including $5 million for its tobacco work in 2019.

“There is a lot we could say about the WHO. Its messaging around e-cigarettes is one-sided, misleading, and harmful, as Clive Bates recently pointed out on his blog. It’s stunning to me how the WHO manages to confuse people about questions that should be settled by now — the fact the e-cigarettes are less dangerous than cigarettes, the fact that e-cigarettes had nothing to do with the outbreak of EVALI, the fact that vaping can help people who want to quit smoking.”

He ended on positives, “I am starting to think that the anti-vaping movement has peaked.”

The EVALI scare has ended, the number of countries banning vaping has fallen, Bloomberg’s three-year deal with the Campaign for Tobacco Free Kids is ending, and independent science continues to amass supportive, pro-ecig findings.

Let’s all of us, please, keep doing our best to seek out the truth and then to tell the truth.”

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Dave Cross avatar

Dave Cross

Journalist at POTV
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Dave is a freelance writer; with articles on music, motorbikes, football, pop-science, vaping and tobacco harm reduction in Sounds, Melody Maker, UBG, AWoL, Bike, When Saturday Comes, Vape News Magazine, and syndicated across the Johnston Press group. He was published in an anthology of “Greatest Football Writing”, but still believes this was a mistake. Dave contributes sketches to comedy shows and used to co-host a radio sketch show. He’s worked with numerous vape companies to develop content for their websites.

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