Revealed: Philip Morris funded tobacco research with undisclosed payments

Major new TBIJ investigation uncovers two arrangements in which six-figure sums were paid to intermediaries

Philip Morris made undisclosed payments to fund tobacco research at top universities, the Bureau of Investigative Journalism (TBIJ) can reveal.

TBIJ has uncovered two arrangements in which the tobacco company paid six-figure sums to intermediaries as part of a wider plan to boost sales of a flagship product in Japan.

The research related to Iqos, a heated tobacco product marketed by Philip Morris as a “better alternative” to regular smoking – a claim questioned by multiple independent studies. Iqos has become hugely successful since launching in 2014 and last year became the company’s biggest-selling product, bringing in more money than Marlboro cigarettes.

The information was brought to TBIJ by a whistleblower, Shiro Konuma, who held a senior position at Philip Morris Japan and has become one of a few people to have spoken out publicly against a Big Tobacco company. Konuma was sacked shortly after discovering the two arrangements and raising his concerns internally.

Philip Morris told TBIJ that Konuma’s allegations were investigated thoroughly at the time and found to be without merit. It said Konuma’s employment was “lawfully terminated” after evaluation of his performance during his probationary period” and that his allegations “were not the basis of the termination of his employment”.

The first arrangement involved monthly payments amounting to $300,000 a year to a consultancy firm whose founder and CEO, Hiromichi Kimura, is also a professor at the University of Tokyo.

The company, FTI Innovations, received the money between 2015 and 2019. It was being paid to help Philip Morris engage with the scientific community. But documents seen by TBIJ suggest that Kimura planned to use his position at the university to recruit a Philip Morris employee into his department as a visiting scholar.

A slide from a presentation given by FTI Innovations to Philip Morris Japan in January 2019 (name redacted by TBIJ)

According to Konuma, the plan was for the employee to publish research showing the benefits of heated tobacco products to Japan’s economy. The research, carrying the stamp of a top university, would be used by Philip Morris as part of negotiations with the Japanese government over the tax rates on Iqos.

Konuma says the recruitment plan was called off after he blew the whistle to senior staff.

He also raises questions about whether the payments could have constituted a violation of the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act (FCPA), a piece of US legislation that prohibits companies using payments to influence foreign officials, including employees at state-funded universities.

Brian Frey, a former prosecutor at the US Department of Justice and a partner at the law firm Alston & Bird, said the allegations “have the hallmarks” of a scheme actionable under the FCPA.

Other experts approached by TBIJ said they felt it was unlikely to be treated as an FCPA matter.

A former Philip Morris employee who asked to remain anonymous told TBIJ the payments to FTI Innovations were “huge” and would be difficult to justify to outside investigators.

FTI Innovations told TBIJ: “We do not provide any academic activities or achievements to our clients as contractually defined deliverables”. It said it “complies with all relevant regulations and rules in every project”.

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Kimura told TBIJ he had not received money from Philip Morris in his capacity as a university employee and that he is “not aware of any situation involving PMJ that would constitute a violation of the law”. He said the part-time nature of his role meant he was not required to report any concurrent employment to the university.

The University of Tokyo told TBIJ its conflict of interest advisory board investigated after it “became aware” of the matter in 2020 and identified no problems or violations.

The second arrangement involved an agreed payment of $445,000 in October 2017 to fund research taking place at Kyoto University. The money was paid by Philip Morris Japan to a research firm called CMIC Holdings, which in turn paid the university.

Emails seen by TBIJ show that Philip Morris staff were in direct contact with the Kyoto researchers and requested a discussion about the details of the study.

Using CMIC as a go-between, Konuma says, meant the university’s ethics committee was unaware that a tobacco company was paying for the research when it gave the green light. Contracts signed between CMIC and Kyoto University make no mention of Philip Morris.

Kyoto University told TBIJ: “It cannot be said that the university was officially aware of PM’s involvement.”

It said the project was approved by its ethics committee but that the minutes of that meeting have not been made public. It said that Philip Morris’s funding was known to the professor in charge of the study but not described in the university’s official records.

CMIC told TBIJ there were no problems with the study.

Further documents obtained by TBIJ through freedom of information requests also show how the company lobbied a government official to exempt Iqos from Japan’s smoking ban.

In October 2018, Philip Morris employees met with an official from Japan’s Ministry of Health and presented them with company research claiming that Iqos had only a limited impact on indoor air quality and that passive exposure caused “no adverse effects”. Those findings are disputed by multiple independent studies.

Iqos was granted exemptions from Japan’s smoking ban when it came into effect in April 2020.

The Ministry of Health did not respond to TBIJ’s request for comment.

In 2023 Iqos surpassed Marlboro as Philip Morris’s biggest-selling product, with more than a third of its sales occurring in Japan. This year it will be rolled out in the US.

Reporter: Fin Johnston
Illustrations: Eleanor Shakespeare
Global health editor: Fiona Walker
Deputy editor: Chrissie Giles
Editor: Franz Wild
Impact producer: Paul Eccles
Production editor: Alex Hess
Fact checker: Somesh Jha

Our reporting on tobacco is part of our Global Health project, which has a number of funders including the The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and the University of Bath. None of our funders have any influence over the Bureau’s editorial decisions or output.