Oct. 11 2002
Washington, D.C. — As negotiations resume next week on the proposed tobacco control treaty, the Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (FCTC), it is time for the United States to lead the effort to protect public health around the world or to get out of the way and let other nations negotiate a treaty that can help protect their citizens from tobacco. This fifth round of negotiations, to be held Oct. 14-25 in Geneva, Switzerland, is critical as negotiators will work from a new, streamlined text and the World Health Organization (WHO) has set a deadline of May 2003 for completing the treaty.
So far, the United States, along with Germany and Japan, has led efforts to weaken the treaty. Whether the negotiations succeed could very well depend on whether the United States reverses course and puts public health over the interests of the tobacco industry. U.S. leadership is essential to determining whether the outcome is a strong treaty that can reduce the terrible toll of tobacco around the world or a weak treaty that protects the interests of the tobacco industry. If the U.S. is unwilling to provide this leadership, it should at least stop protecting the interests of the tobacco interest and let other nations negotiate an effective treaty that advances efforts to reduce the terrible toll of tobacco around the world.
If a strong treaty is negotiated, it will serve as a catalyst for tobacco control efforts both globally and within individual countries. On the other hand, a weak or poorly drafted treaty will be used by the tobacco industry to argue against stronger domestic legislation in the United States and around the world. Unfortunately, during previous negotiating sessions, the U.S. government has supported weak provisions in the treaty on:
Health before trade: It is important not only that the treaty commit nations to enacting effective tobacco control measures, but that it also protects the rights of nations to enact these measures by shielding them from being challenged as violations of trade agreements. Decisions about the trade of tobacco should be made with regard to how best to protect the public health of the citizens of the world.
This issue is critical as the tobacco industry has a long history of using trade law as a tool to thwart tobacco control policies, several times with the support of the U.S. government in the 1980s. In a current example, Philip Morris has threatened to challenge Canada's proposed ban on misleading terms such as "light" and "mild" as a violation of the North American Free Trade Agreement and an international agreement on patents and trademarks.
Unfortunately, the U.S. has supported FCTC provisions that would subordinate the public health provisions of the treaty to trade considerations. In contrast, the majority of countries, including many U.S. allies and trading partners, have supported provisions explicitly stating that public health measures enacted in accordance with the treaty are to take priority when they conflict with trade rules.
Misleading descriptors such as "light" and "low-tar:" During past negotiations, the U.S. has supported provisions that would allow the tobacco industry to keep deceiving consumers through the use of misleading terms such as "light," "low tar" and "mild." The U.S. has not supported a ban on these terms despite the conclusions of a November 2001 report by the National Cancer Institute that the use of such terms is "deceptive", has misled consumers into believing such cigarettes are less harmful, and constitute "an urgent public health issue."
Advertising: During past negotiations the U.S. has opposed provisions that would allow a ban on advertising in nations whose constitutions allow one.
The evidence is strong that the most effective way to eliminate the influence of tobacco marketing on young people is through comprehensive restrictions. Many nations support the inclusion in the treaty of a provision banning all direct and indirect tobacco advertising, reserving to those countries with constitutional limitations the right to enact lesser restrictions. As eight U.S. Senators put it in a letter to President Bush in March, "While there are U.S. Constitutional issues involving advertising bans, the U.S. should not prevent other nations from adopting advertising bans in keeping with their own legal systems when the U.S. Surgeon General has concluded that such limits have been shown to reduce tobacco consumption, especially among youth." The U.S. should stop opposing the inclusion of language in the treaty calling for the elimination of tobacco advertising when this would have no practical effect on the United States.
The WHO estimates that there are 1.1 billion smokers in the world today, a number expected to rise to 1.64 billion by the year 2025. About four million people die each year from tobacco use. If current trends continue, this figure will reach about 10 million per year by the early 2030s, with 70 percent of those deaths occurring in developing countries. Based on current smoking trends, tobacco will soon become the leading cause of death worldwide, causing more deaths than HIV, maternal mortality, automobile accidents, homicide and suicide combined.