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The Australian Tobacco Harm Reduction Association (ATHRA) admitted to receiving “secret” funding from businesses in the vaping industry, according to The Sydney Morning Herald.

ATHRA’s mission is to help legalize vaping nicotine, suggesting e-cigarettes are “95 percent less harmful” and remains a “life-saving alternative” to smokers attempting to quit nicotine cigarettes.

In response to growing criticism and skepticism over the funding, ATHRA released an online statement, stating it received no financial benefits from tobacco companies and wanted to make clear that its top executives are not linked monetarily to manufacturers of vaping products.

The charity is predominately made up of doctors and declared its decisions were not compromised by the startup funding.

“ATHRA’s acceptance of untied donations from e-cigarette companies is no different to the National Heart Foundation and Cancer Council accepting donations from pharmaceutical companies,” said Colin Mendelsohn, an ATHRA chairman. “If ATHRA is to achieve its goal of reducing the harm from tobacco smoking in Australia, it will require funding for establishment costs and ongoing expenses.”

Among the funds ATHRA took in included $15,000 from Nicopharm, an e-liquid supplier, and $2,500 from Nicovape, an e-cigarette maker. Before being removed from ATHRA’s website, both of the companies, for a short amount of time, had their logos displayed and were listed as “Foundation Sponsors,” The Sydney Morning Herald reported.

“The funding provided was unconditional and ATHRA does not directly promote either business,” Mendelsohn said. “Neither (Nicopharm or Nicovape) is mentioned on the website or is provided with any direct benefits.”

Despite the (not-so-secret) funding, ATHRA officials insist the charity remains an independent entity.

“We do not say that we do not accept funding from the vaping industry, which is quite separate from the tobacco industry,” said Mendelsohn, adding the association’s start-up costs necessitated the funding.

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