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Tobacco Treaty Negotiations Make Progress Despite Continued U.S. Efforts to Weaken Key Provisions

Statement of Judith P. Wilkenfeld Director, International Programs Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids
November 28, 2001

Washington, DC — Despite continued efforts by the United States to weaken key provisions, negotiators over the past week have continued to make progress toward achieving a strong and effective Framework Convention on Tobacco Control that can reduce the death and disease tobacco use causes around the world. It is disappointing that the United States continues to take positions on tobacco advertising, consumer protection, trade and other issues that would protect the interests of the tobacco industry rather than public health. However, it is heartening that nations from Africa, Asia, the Middle East and other regions that are the latest targets of the tobacco industry's marketing barrage have taken strong positions and have succeeded in keeping them under consideration as the negotiating process moves forward.

National delegations in this third round of negotiations have worked to streamline an unwieldy draft text that consisted of different and often conflicting approaches to key issues. We are encouraged that they have produced a more concise text for further negotiation that includes strong provisions on almost every major issue, from advertising to smuggling to product regulation. One of the few exceptions is the provision on clean indoor air, which falls short of calling for measures to prohibit smoking in all public and private indoor workplaces. While other weak provisions are also under consideration, the stage has been set to achieve a meaningful Convention if nations choose to take forceful action to protect the public health rather than settle for the least common denominator among their positions.

While the United States took a more conciliatory approach at this round of negotiations than the last, the change in tone was, for the most part, not matched by a change in substance. Here are a few examples of how the U.S. sought to weaken the proposed treaty:

  1. On the same day as the release of a National Cancer Institute report finding that the tobacco industry's use of the terms 'light' and 'low-tar' is deceptive and harmful to public health, the U.S. continued to oppose a total ban on these and similar terms. Fortunately, text that is still under consideration and supported by a broad range of nations would ban such terms.

  2. While many nations support a total ban on tobacco advertising, the United States has opposed such a ban, citing constitutional concerns. When offered a compromise allowing each nation to act 'in conformity with its national Constitution,' the United States sought to add a giant loophole by allowing advertising that conforms to 'domestic law.' Such a condition would not obligate nations to take any new steps to ban or restrict tobacco advertising.

  3. The U.S. has also disagreed with the majority of nations on the issue of trade and public health. Many nations have advocated provisions that would give priority to public health measures when such measures are examined for compatibility with other international agreements. The chair of one negotiating session pointedly noted that nations had agreed to this principle for the first time during the recent World Trade Organization meeting in Doha, Qatar (the issue in Doha was developing nation's access to affordable AIDS drugs). While other nations favor health over trade, the U.S. proposed the following contrary language: 'The parties agree that tobacco control measures shall be transparent, non-discriminatory and implemented in accordance with their international obligations.'

The U.S. took a more constructive approach to the important issue of cigarette smuggling by proposing the simultaneous negotiation of a separate protocol – a more detailed addendum to the Convention – that would commit nations to take specific steps to combat smuggling, which undermines tobacco control measures such as price increases. The U.S. position would likely result in faster action to address this urgent issue than if nations waited until after the completion of the Convention, now scheduled for May 2003. However, the U.S. proposal on smuggling lacked any detail. In addition, the United States' credibility with other nations on the smuggling issue was undermined by the weak positions it took on other issues.

While we are encouraged by the progress made at this round of negotiations, we remain concerned that a strong treaty will continue to be undermined by the United States, along with Japan and a small minority of other nations that have supported positions favorable to the tobacco industry. The world would pay a high price if these nations were to succeed in weakening the treaty. Tobacco is the leading preventable cause of death in the United States, killing more than 400,000 Americans every year. Worldwide, about four million people die each year from tobacco-related disease, with this figure projected to rise to about 10 million per year by 2030. This week's negotiations gives us hope that the Framework Convention on Tobacco Control will commit nations to the strong action needed to address this epidemic.