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U.S. Should Lead Efforts to Protect Global Health or Get Out of the Way as Final Negotiations Begin on Tobacco Treaty (Feb. 17-28)

Statement of Judith Wilkenfeld, Director of International Programs
February 13, 2003

Washington, D.C. — As final negotiations begin next week on the proposed international tobacco treaty, the Framework Convention on Tobacco Control, it is time for the United States to stop protecting the interests of Philip Morris and the tobacco industry and start leading efforts to save lives around the world. If the U.S. will not support a strong treaty, it should get out of the way and let other nations negotiate a treaty that can stop the tobacco industry's assault on the developing world. Surely the U.S. does not want to stand in the way of this historic effort to stop the global death toll of tobacco from doubling in the next several decades. The sixth and final round of negotiations is scheduled for February 17-28 in Geneva, Switzerland.

The tobacco treaty is an unprecedented opportunity to address a public health epidemic that already claims four million lives a year worldwide and is projected to kill 10 million per year by the early 2030s, with 70 percent of those deaths in developing countries. As home to Philip Morris, the world's largest tobacco company, the U.S. has a special obligation to provide leadership in negotiating a strong treaty that can reduce the alarming rates of death and disease caused by tobacco use. Unfortunately, the United States has led efforts to weaken the treaty and protect the interests of the tobacco industry. Because of U.S. pressure, the latest draft of the treaty would allow the tobacco industry to continue exporting not only its deadly products, but also its harmful marketing practices that addict children and deceive the public about the harm caused by tobacco use. This latest text does not reflect the strong positions taken by the clear majority of countries during previous rounds of negotiations, especially by developing nations that are on the front lines of this epidemic.

The United States should reverse course and act to protect the public health rather than the tobacco industry. And the many nations that have fought for a strong treaty should redouble their efforts and refuse to accept a treaty that fails to give them the tools they need to protect the health of their citizens. 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 U.S. and around the world. Too much is at stake to squander this opportunity by accepting a watered-down treaty acceptable to the United States and the tobacco industry.

The latest draft of the treaty is especially weak on the following key issues:

  • Advertising: The evidence is strong that the most effective way to eliminate the influence of tobacco marketing on young people is through comprehensive advertising restrictions. Despite strong support from a large majority of nations for a total ban on tobacco advertising to the extent permitted by each nation's constitution, the treaty fails to call for an ad ban. Instead the watered down treaty calls on governments to impose gradual restrictions on tobacco advertising but requires nothing. The United States has led efforts against the ad ban provision, despite the constitutional reservation that would result in this provision having little if any practical impact on the U.S.

  • Misleading descriptors such as 'light' and 'low tar': Public health experts from around the world have urged that the treaty prohibit the terms 'light' and 'low tar'. The U.S. has not supported a ban on these terms despite the conclusions of the November 2001 report by the U.S. National Cancer Institute that the use of such terms is 'deceptive', has misled consumers into believing such cigarettes are less harmful, and constitutes' an urgent public health issue.' The draft text would not ban these misleading terms, but rather places the burden of proof on nations to show that these terms are used in a way that creates a false impression that a product is less harmful. The tobacco industry has consistently shown that it will use every means to challenge attempts by nations to regulate these terms.

  • Secondhand smoke: The draft treaty lacks any meaningful provisions on secondhand smoke that would obligate countries to protect the public health from exposure to secondhand tobacco smoke in public places. It is now well established that secondhand smoke constitutes a serious health hazard as it contains over 4,000 chemicals and 69 known carcinogens including formaldehyde, cyanide, arsenic, carbon monoxide, methane, benzene, and radioactive polonium 210.

  • Health before trade: The majority of countries have supported a provision to protect tobacco control measures from trade challenges, while the United States had led the fight against such a provision. The treaty should recognize that the lethal nature of tobacco products requires that they be treated differently from the beneficial products to which the international trade rules normally apply. This issue is critical as the tobacco industry has a long history of using trade law as a tool to thwart tobacco control policies, including several times with the support of the U.S. government in the 1980s. In a recent 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.

The World Health Organization 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.

***Judith Wilkenfeld is available for comment and will be in Geneva, February 15-28. She can be reached at 202/413-2488 (U.S. mobile).