Former New York mayor Michael Bloomberg recently announced $420 million to reduce “tobacco use globally.” This new eye-watering amount should be good news. But because of Bloomberg’s self-interested understanding of nicotine use, it can only follow from his previous financial contributions that this money will do far more harm than good.

Describing the commitment of $420 million over four years, the Bloomberg press release explains that “$280 million will be aimed at reducing tobacco use in low- and middle-income countries,” and the other $140 million will go toward “reducing e-cigarette use among teenagers in the United States.”

The release fails to mention that Bloomberg’s previous largesse, a whopping $160 million specifically to ban flavored e-cigarettes, has caused a widespread misunderstanding of the benefits of vape flavors in reducing combustible tobacco use among adults. This misperception is occurring in the United States and the rest of the world.

While enlightened countries with liberal regulation of safer nicotine products (such as e-cigarettes) experienced smoking rates decreasing twice as fast as the global average, Bloomberg’s vast cash injection has pushed the United States into a situation where regulators are stuck in political inertia. In 2018, the Food and Drug Administration committed to “encouraging innovations that have the potential to make a notable public health difference.” 

A former FDA commissioner declared in the same year that “if more adults are able to fully transition from combustible tobacco products to (e-cigarettes), we might be able to significantly reduce the overall morbidity and mortality associated with tobacco use.”

Bloomberg’s millions then halted that public health potential by convincing lawmakers that vaping is a threat to youth rather than an effective tool for helping adults who smoke to quit.

The FDA is now being guided by misinformation and ideology and assaulted by Bloomberg-funded interests whenever they have the audacity to approve a reduced-risk product for sale (despite the available science that backs FDA guidance on authorizing that sale). Americans are deprived of flavored harm-reduction products that have helped them quit smoking and prevent relapse, all at the whim of a consistently wrong billionaire.

But it is not just in the United States where Bloomberg’s funding is causing harm. Like colonialists of old, he imposes his will, borne out of his own distaste for lower-risk products, on poorer countries worldwide. His latest funding will continue to be used to denigrate harm-reduction options in low- and middle-income countries where more than 80 percent of the world’s smokers live.

Ironically, Bloomberg’s publicity seeks to claim credit that is not his to claim. He boasts that since his funding began, “global smoking rates have fallen from 22.7 percent to 17.5 percent.” However, much of that is due to the increased use of reduced-risk options, which he vehemently opposes.

Japan has experienced a staggering 50 percent collapse in cigarette sales since heated tobacco — another alternative to combustible cigarettes — was introduced to the nicotine market in 2016. Sweden is close to becoming an official “smokefree” country (defined as less than 5 percent prevalence) due to the public’s use of snus — a smokeless tobacco product pasteurized to remove all carcinogens — to consume nicotine rather than smoking. Bloomberg’s fundees call for the prohibition of heated tobacco and oppose snus use.

The level of his funding also presents an ethical dilemma. His pledge takes his total contribution up to $1.58 billion, which is used to produce policy-led research, silence critics, lobby lawmakers for restrictions and bans on safer products, and even attempt to buy government control. Meanwhile, consumer groups personally affected by the damage Bloomberg is doing have a scant $309,810 in funding globally to fight back.

An unelected and unaccountable billionaire with so much uncontested influence on public health across the globe is skewing democracy and should be of great concern.

In seeking prestige and immortality, Bloomberg no doubt sees himself as a great redeemer, using his vast wealth to reduce death and disease on a global scale and secure his legacy as a philanthropic hero. Sadly, his conceit, ideology and refusal to take note of scientific evidence that disagrees with his prejudices against safer alternatives to combustible tobacco can only prolong the harms of smoking and show he was on the wrong side of history.