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Project Unthinkable: A Doctor's Gamble to Save Millions of Lives

Project Unthinkable: A Doctor's Gamble to Save Millions of Lives

by Derek Yach MD
Project Unthinkable: A Doctor's Gamble to Save Millions of Lives

Project Unthinkable: A Doctor's Gamble to Save Millions of Lives

by Derek Yach MD


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This is the memoir of one of the world’s most effective health crusaders and his lifelong campaign to save lives around the globe.  Author Derek Yach started out in a traditional way, at the World Health Organization, where he demonized Big Tobacco for causing the death of millions worldwide. Then, after engineering an international treaty to curb smoking around the world, he crossed the line. In an unorthodox move, he joined Pepsi to help its CEO transform the chips and soda behemoth into a more healthy company. The author’s rationale was this: To save tens of millions of lives, you may have to go inside the enemy corporation to help it change. So when Philip Morris International (PMI) announced it was ready to switch from combustible cigarettes to smokeless ones, a move that could save untold lives, Yach made the most audacious gamble of his long career in global public health.

Project Unthinkable is a biography embedded in several big themes:

- Can a company that causes harm to human health change from the inside?

- Can you cross the line and work with the opposition?

- Will combustible cigarettes become history?

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781988025285
Publisher: Barlow Publishing
Publication date: 11/10/2018
Pages: 216
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.10(h) x 1.00(d)

About the Author

Dr. Derek Yach has dedicated his life’s work to saving lives around the globe. Now, after years of crusading against Big Tobacco, Dr. Yach has stirred up an international controversy for his decision to support the sale of safer, non-combustible cigarettes. Born in South Africa, he is an avid long-distance swimmer and lives in Connecticut. USA.

Read an Excerpt

Sitting on a runway at John F. Kennedy International Airport: I am on an evening flight from New York to Geneva, a journey I have made often over the last decade but never in this capacity. From my seat in business class, from behind my glasses, I surreptitiously glance up to scrutinize the faces of the passengers around me. Do I know them from somewhere? Do they know me? I recognize no one. Relief floods through my body, and I sink further down into the comfortable seat, headphones on, hoping to lose myself in a movie. But I can’t concentrate. Instead, my mind is racing ahead to my arrival at Geneva International Airport, which is like a second home for people I used to work with as they fly to and return from meetings around the world.

Just like I am.

Only a few years ago, Geneva was my second home, too, part of a high-flying job I had at the World Health Organization. What if I run into an old friend or former colleague when I get there? I have no idea what I will say. Silently, I test out different responses to see how they would go over.

“I’m here to do some touring.”

No. I’m hardly a tourist, having lived here for nearly 10 years.

Or, “There’s a swimming competition I’m going to on Lake Geneva. You remember that I love to swim?”

I may be an avid swimmer but somehow, traveling to Switzerland in the fall to participate in a competition beggars belief.

Or, more simply, “I am visiting old friends.”

I reject that one, too. The friends my wife, Yasmin and I had in the region—doctors, scientists and peers--are the very ones I would be making excuses to, because I can’t tell them the truth in the first place.

The fact is, I am going to a meeting at Philip Morris International Inc.

There, I’ve said it to myself. There is no getting around it. If it was anyone else, that might sound reasonable or at least acceptable; but for me, it encompasses the impossible--the unthinkable. I, an epidemiologist and public health expert, the first-ever director of the World Health Organization’s Tobacco Free Initiative and an architect of the international treaty known as the Framework Convention on Tobacco Control, which was conceived to protect present and future generations from the devastating health, social, environmental and economic consequences of tobacco consumption and exposure toits deadly smoke, am en route to a meeting in nearby Lausanne at the headquarters of the second largest cigarette manufacturer in the world.

I have spent my entire adult life fighting tobacco companies and the lies they have told. I helped enact a set of universal standards and provisions that include rules to govern the production, sale, distribution, advertising and taxation of tobacco products, which in turn have led to a 2.5 per cent reduction in global smoking rates. That may not sound like much but when you consider that about 1.1 billion people, or one in three adults, smoke around the world, that percentage is huge. And yet, here I am, on my way to a date with PMI’s chief executive officer, André Calantzopoulos.

Don’t panic. Breathe. Pace yourself. It’s just a meeting.

Is it any wonder I’m nervous? If I do encounter someone I know at the airport, I shall have to be purposefully vague about the visit, mumbling that I am in Switzerland for an unspecified business meeting and hoping I’m not pressed further. Or I will pull up the collar of my woollen trench coat, duck my head to hide my face and hurry by, a scurrying figure man in rumpled clothes he has slept in on the plane.

Truth be told, I still can’t quite believe I’m here, high above the Atlantic, eating a meal, reclining my seat, putting on an eye mask to sleep for a few hours. as the plane hurtles me towards a place of business I have spent the whole of my professional life trying to destroy.

The statistics run through my mind in an endless loop: cigarettes kill about six million people a year around the world right now and are projected to kill up to one billion in this century. Tobacco use means disease and death, period. And yet here I am, traveling to a factory in the business of death, one of the five big players in an industry that for years bribed government officials and academics to take their side; an industry that prevaricated, obfuscated and lied outright when presented with incontrovertible facts, with scientific research and statistics about the link between cigarettes and cancer; an industry that balked every step of the way as we worked towards the signing of the international treaty, even setting paid spies in our midst.

I know I risk censure and ostracism from my scientific colleagues who, given Big Tobacco’s dismal track record, dismiss any claims by the companies that they’re trying to do the right thing. For much of the public health community, the only way to diminish tobacco’s influence is through education, hardline legislation, higher excise taxes, helping addicts to go cold turkey or, in the best and most unlikely idea of all, shutting the companies down.

They will say I have been bought.

They will say I am doing the unthinkable.

To the first charge, I can respond with a definitive “No.” As to the second, that I am doing the unthinkable, they are absolutely right. Ever since I was a child, I’ve had a stubborn streak, always insisting on looking at every side of every problem, turning it upside down and inside out. And when a new, previously unthinkable angle comes up that has the potential to change the way we approach that problem, something in me needs to see it through to the end, no matter the price I may have to pay. I shall have to be strong, stronger than I have had to be before.

Maybe I’m naïve but I like to believe that people, and even whole industries, can change their opinions and approach. Or at the very least, they can shift their priorities, which may be change enough in itself. Maybe I just like to keep an open mind.

On the plane, I carry no notes because I very deliberately didn’t write anything down. I didn’t want to take a chance that anyone would see them. Instead, I review the conditions and questions I have in my head, the studies and statistics I have been poring over so that I can call upon them without a moment’s hesitation. In one of his books, Henry Kissinger once wrote that whenever he sees people in meetings or other settings, he knows that even if he simply smiles and says ‘hello,’ that will lead to something else and he has to be prepared to handle what comes next, and next and next.

I know I’m on my way to a meeting that could change the course of my life and the future of people’s health. So, I will channel Henry Kissinger. I will force myself to be calm and my mantra shall be Listen, respond, be prepared for what comes and do not judge.

The pilot announces our descent into Geneva. There is no going back. Then, a sudden wave of panic: What if, oh my God, what if the driver from Philip Morris is waiting for me with a sign that says ‘PMI – Derek Yach’?

For a moment, the image is my nightmare come to life. I’d have nowhere to hide. Maybe people I know have already seen the sign (if it exists) and have already charged, tried and convicted me without my having a say in the matter.

Don’t be silly, I chide myself. Like it or not, hide it or not, I am about to do the unthinkable - again. The plane taxis to a standstill at the gate. I stand up to shrug on my coat.

Table of Contents


Chapter 1: Beginnings

Chapter 2: Finding My Way

Chapter 3: Leaving Home

Chapter 4: Taking on Big Tobacco

Chapter 5: The End of the Beginning

Chapter 6: Treading Water

Chapter 7: Opening Up a Can of Trouble

Chapter 8: Inside Man at Pepsi

Chapter 9: The Virtuous Cycle

Chapter 10: In the Lair of the Enemy

Chapter 11: The Battle Ahead

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