ZURICH, July 24 (Reuters) - Swiss Foreign Minister Ignazio Cassis is under fire from the nation's medical elite over a 1.8 million Swiss francs ($1.8 million) sponsoring deal with tobacco giant Philip Morris International to help fund Switzerland's Expo 2020 pavilion in Dubai.
The Swiss School of Public Health, a foundation of eight universities offering post-graduate health education, told Cassis in an open letter made public on Wednesday that Philip Morris was among firms that long downplayed smoking's risks, including early death.
Taking tobacco money contradicts "all ethical principles" of the health sciences, the group wrote.
"This industry has deceived the public for decades, spread lies about the effects of smoking and passive smoking, and with massive investments misled the population into believing that science was not unified on these questions," the foundation said in a three-page letter urging Cassis not to take the money.
Cassis, a medical doctor and former president of the national health association Public Health Schweiz, is now reviewing the sponsoring deal, Swiss media including the Aargauer Zeitung and tabloid Blick have reported.
The Foreign Ministry in Bern did not respond to message seeking comment.
A spokesman for Philip Morris, the world's biggest cigarette maker whose brands include Marlboro, also did not immediately respond to a request for comment. The company has a Swiss base in Lausanne, on Lake Geneva.
The World Health Organization (WHO) has entered the fray, after learning of the sponsorship deal.
In 2011, the WHO and the intergovernmental Paris-based Bureau International Expositions (BIE), the expo organizer, signed a memorandum of understanding (MOU) addressing public health issues linked to such global events.
Among other things, the MOU includes prohibitions on advertising, sales, promotion and sponsoring through tobacco products, WHO spokesman said. After Philip Morris's support of Switzerland's pavilion in Dubai became public, the WHO has begun communicating with BIE, as well as Swiss officials in Bern, over the apparent conflict.
"Obviously, any sponsorship or sales of tobacco products would not be in agreement with the memorandum," WHO spokesman Christian Lindmeier said. "The WHO has always been very strong on its messaging about tobacco products. About 8 million people a year die from smoking-related disease."
About 27 percent of the Swiss population either smokes or is regularly exposed to passive smoking, according to a 2017 survey by the Federal Office For Statistics.
$1 = 0.9851 Swiss francs Reporting by John Miller; Editing by Mark Potter