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By Aditya Kalra
NEW DELHI, June 30 (Reuters) - India's health ministry has asked all state governments in the country not to partner with the Foundation for a Smoke-Free World (FSFW) because of its links to tobacco giant Philip Morris International Inc, a letter seen by Reuters showed.
Established in 2017, the FSFW focuses on eliminating usage of cigarettes and works towards smoking cessation using new technologies and alternative products. It says it works independently, but the World Health Organization (WHO) has said there are "clear conflicts" due to the $80 million in annual funding the foundation receives from Philip Morris.
At least three Indian anti-tobacco groups earlier this year wrote to the federal health ministry in New Delhi calling for the rejection of any possible partnerships with FSFW, according to copies of their representations seen by Reuters.
India's federal health ministry has sent a letter, dated June 24, to chief secretaries of all states, saying they should not partner with FSFW and also advise other departments and institutions in their region accordingly.
The ministry said Philip Morris was funding FSFW as well as manufacturing and promoting harm-reduction smoking devices. Reuters has previously reported Philip Morris has plans to launch its iQOS smoking device in India which it says is less harmful than conventional cigarettes.
"Any collaboration with the Foundation for a Smoke Free World should be avoided in the larger interest of Public Health," senior health ministry official, Sanjeeva Kumar, wrote in the letter, which was reviewed by Reuters.
The Foundation for a Smoke-Free World, which is led by former WHO official Dr. Derek Yach, said it "operates with complete independence from Philip Morris" and was committed to full transparency about who its funders were.
Philip Morris, which has a stated longer-term vision to replace cigarette sales with products such as its iQOS device, in a statement said FSFW was "an independent body governed by its own independent Board of Directors".
In recent years, the Indian government has intensified its tobacco-control efforts, raising cigarette taxes and ordering companies to print bigger health warnings on cigarette packs.
India has 106 million adult smokers, second only to China, and more than 900,000 people die each year in India due to tobacco-related illnesses.
A federal health ministry official said on Sunday the letter on FSFW had been sent as a preventive measure to dissuade states from any collaboration with the foundation, and similar instructions were likely to be sent to other federal ministries.
The FSFW said there were no projects with any state government institutions in India. "We seek partnerships with all who share our goal to end smoking in the world," a spokesperson said in a statement to Reuters.
In May, FSFW said its team was committed to working with others "to accelerate an end to smoking in this generation" in India. It also invited people to study its strategic plan.
That same month, Philip Morris in a press statement said it had urged the Indian government to create a regulatory environment for devices such as its iQOS.
When the FSFW was launched in 2017, the WHO had said it will not partner with the foundation and asked governments around the world and public health communities to follow the agency's lead. (Reporting by Aditya Kalra Editing by Martin Howell and David Evans)