Bloomberg and Gates Fund a New Kind of Fight Against Big Tobacco

Smoking is one of the biggest killers in the developing world, and things are only going to get worse, with an estimated eight million people dying per year through the 2030s. But remarkably few foundations are working to lower this death toll. That's too bad, because saving lives by reducing smoking rates is not rocket science. Developed countries have already shown what works. 

Related: Funders Haven’t Forgotten About Smoking. But Why Aren’t They Spending Bigger?

The good news is that Bloomberg Philanthropies and the Gates Foundation—two giant grantmakers—are among the funders trying to curb worldwide tobacco use. They work together at times, and their latest joint effort veers away from getting smokers to quit and keeping kids from picking up the bad habit. Instead, Bloomberg and Gates are mixing things up in a new fight with the powerful tobacco industry. Specifically, they are targeting big tobacco’s penchant for using international trade agreements to prevent countries from putting strong tobacco control laws on the books.

The $4 million Anti-Tobacco Trade Litigation Fund, which will rely on legal resources and technical assistance from Bloomberg’s Campaign for Tobacco-Fee Kids, will help with low- and middle-income countries' governments in their defense against international trade suits brought by tobacco companies.

Not surprisingly, big tobacco’s legal maneuverings with these lawsuits are pretty obnoxious. For example, Uruguay has a national law that requires tobacco products be plainly packaged using only dull colors and displaying graphic health warnings. Phillip Morris International brought suit against the country in 2010, challenging its packaging law.

It's pretty clear who the Goliath is in this fight. Phillip Morris International’s market cap is nearly twice as much as Uruguay’s GNP. And obviously, the money the country is using to fend off big tobacco litigation could be put to better use.

The litigiousness of big tobacco often delays the adoptation of the Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (FCTC). The FCTC is the world’s first global public health treaty, which was negotiated under the auspices of the WHO back in 2003 and has since been adopted by 180 countries.

One thing interesting about the Gates and Bloomberg partnership is how the latter funder is clearly in the driver's seat, with Gates putting up big chunks of cash. Last year, the Gates Foundation gave Bloomberg Philanthropies $34 million in support of its anti-smoking crusade. It's not surprising that Bloomberg Philanthropies is the unmatched leader in anti-tobacco funding; it's committed $600 million to the cause since 2007.

That investment hasn't received all that much attention, but it's hard to think of another funder that's put up comparable big money in recent times for so specific a cause. Bloomberg, for example, has spent more fighting smoking since 2007 than the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation has put toward it's high-profile attack on childhood obesity. 

The Gates Foundation, meanwhile, has put $147 million into its tobacco control grantmaking program since 2007, which itself is a lot of money. That's Gates for you: Even its smaller programs give out vast sums over time. 

Related: Need a Light? Definitely Not. But Better Data on Smoking Would Be Great

Given all these big numbers, though, doesn't the combined $4 million investment in the Anti-Tobacco Trade Litigation Fund seem a bit, well, paltry? Especially when we're talking about small countries defending themselves against some of the richest companies in the world?  

According to both Bloomberg and Gates, they aren’t acting as the benefactors of the entire fund, but more like seed funders. The hope here is that their investment will inspire other donors to give to the fund. That sounds great in theory, except for one hitch: Most big funders simply aren’t paying a lot of attention to the millions of people dying from smoking every year.