More than 100 groups urged the International Labour Organisation (ILO) to stop taking money from tobacco companies as the UN body prepared on Wednesday to once again debate the controversial issue.

In a letter addressed to the ILO's governing body, a number of national and nongovernmental health and antitobacco groups warned on Tuesday that the ILO risked "tarnishing its reputation and the effectiveness of its work" if it did not cut its ties with the tobacco industry.

The UN's labour agency has long been under fire for its partnerships with tobacco companies and has been accused of jeopardising global efforts to regulate tobacco use and reduce the harmful effects of smoking.

Tobacco companies that spread death and disease across the globe should have no place in the ILO, or any responsible organisation.
Matt Myers
Head of the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids

The ILO's governing body is set to debate the issue again on  Wednesday, and health and anti-tobacco advocates are hoping it will decide to join other UN agencies — most notably the World Health Organisation — in flatly refusing to engage with the industry.

"Tobacco companies that spread death and disease across the globe should have no place in the ILO, or any responsible organisation," said Matt Myers, head of the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids, one of the organisations behind the letter.

It is unclear how quickly the ILO will be able to decide in the matter. The agency has already debated the issue and postponed a decision three times in the past year and a half.

The ILO has until now justified its ties to the tobacco companies as a way of helping improve the working conditions of the some 60-million people involved in tobacco growing and production worldwide.

The agency has over the past decade received around $15m from some of the world's biggest tobacco companies towards two "charitable partnerships" aimed at reducing child labour in tobacco fields across a range of countries.

But Tuesday's letter alleged that the projects had only "nominal impact" on the practice, and charged that the companies involved were using them "to provide cover for egregious tobacco industry abuse".

"The tobacco industry has derived nearly 20 times more in economic benefit from unpaid child labour in Malawi alone than it spent on all its social programming," the letter maintained, pointing to a 2006 study published by the US National Institutes of Health.