International Tobacco Treaty: Public Health Advocates Face an Uphill Battle

How Bad Does it Have to be Before it's Worse than Nothing?
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Special to CorpWatch

For the next two weeks, government delegates will converge on Geneva to continue hammering out a treaty aimed at regulating the global tobacco industry and protecting human health. High on the agenda are bans on tobacco advertising, a package of measures to tackle smuggling, new warning labels, bans on misleading branding, and a series of initiatives to 'globalise' the public health response to tobacco.

The treaty, the Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (FCTC), has been promoted under the auspices of the World Health Organisation and is expected to be finalised for signing in May 2003. The current meeting will be the fifth round of negotiations.

Not surprisingly the tobacco industry and its client states such as Germany, Japan and the United States have been doing as much as they can to delay, dissipate and divert any measures that look as though they may be effective.

The Chair's Text is Compromised

Despite strong tobacco control positions from many developing countries and some good contributions from Europe, Canada and Australia, the treaty is drawing ever closer to Philip Morris's design. In July, the Chair of the negotiations, Brazilian Ambassador Luiz Felipe de Seixas Corra, issued his new 'Chair's text', supposedly a best shot at synthesising the discussions of the previous four negotiating sessions.

The text was so disappointing that debate among non-governmental organisations (NGOs) centred on whether this new text was worse than nothing at all, and whether outright opposition is the right approach. For example, in what is textbook tobacco industry policy, the Chair has decided that there should be "strict restrictions on all forms of tobacco advertising, promotion and sponsorship targeted at vulnerable groups."

Public heath advocates sighed a collective "oh dear" and reconciled themselves to once again offering patient explanations of how restrictions are ineffective. Restrictions should be judged by what they permit, not just by what they forbid, they say. Besides it's impossible to prove the intent implicit in targeting; what is and isn't aimed at 'vulnerable groups' is impossible to determine. Everyone who smokes is vulnerable to addiction and horrible diseases, according to NGOs involved in the negotiations.

Following the publication of the Chair's text, NGOs were forced to adopt a new principle for briefing the negotiators: "first do no harm."

Big Tobacco's Agenda

On the other hand, British American Tobacco's (BAT) Chairman Martin Broughton recognised the Chair's text as "progress."

"I think the convention looks like coming out giving quite a lot of flexibility. So, it's looking to be a more sensible draft now than it was some time ago, but it's still work in progress," he noted in an interview posted on the company's website in July.

For BAT, progress means removing anything that smacks of an obligation to tackle tobacco companies. The company favours voluntary or vague language such as "where practical," or "as appropriate," combined with undated phase-outs, restrictions rather than prohibitions and a focus on youth smoking prevention, which offers a public relations opportunity for the industry.

Meanwhile, industry giant Philip Morris also welcomes a tobacco control treaty, but only one that embraces its particular view of tobacco control.

According to the company website, Phillip Morris supports "meaningful, but sensible rules that are designed to prevent minors from smoking, ensure that consumers continue to receive up-to-date information about tobacco-related health issues, promote the creation of public spaces where both non-smokers and smokers can be comfortable, encourage the development and marketing of cigarettes that might reduce the health risks of smoking and cigarette-related fires, and create and maintain a more stable, predictable business environment."

Perhaps the most pro-tobacco government is Japan. The Japanese government is virtually indistinguishable from the Japan Tobacco International. The government is the majority shareholder of the corporation, which owns RJ Reynolds' non-US business. According to a briefing to the Japan Times, the Japanese delegation will arrive in Geneva with a position formally opposed to cuts in tobacco consumption and will claim that tobacco should be defined as an "article of taste" for adults. It will be a sign of failure of the public health community if the treaty is completed in a form acceptable to Japan.

Tobacco and Trade

Just in case the tobacco lobby does not get it own way entirely, the Chair, Seixas Corra of Brazil, has suggested a series of provisions that would subordinate this treaty to the WTO agreements. So the validity of the public health measures in the Framework Convention would be tested in the dispute resolution panels under the General Agreement on Trade in Services (GATS), Technical Barriers to Trade (TBT) and TRIPs (Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property rights) agreements, all of which are guided by protecting free trade rather than health. Even where two parties in dispute have both signed the Framework Convention, the dispute would still go to the WTO.

Nevertheless, public interest organisations are still in there fighting hard for a good treaty at this week's meeting in Geneva. They are strengthened by the clear statements given by many developing countries over the last three months in favour of a strong, meaningful Convention that puts health and human welfare ahead of the commercial interests of Big Tobacco. Meanwhile, it remains to be seen whether the Framework Convention on Tobacco Control can be salvaged, or whether public interest groups will be forced to call for scrapping the treaty


For a detailed critique of the Chair's text by ASH and Campaign for Tobacco Free Kids:

For the lobbying position adopted by the Framework Convention Alliance of over 180 NGOs worldwide, and news, comment and satire as the negotiations proceed visit:

Clive Bates is the Director of Action on Smoking and Health (ASH) based in the UK.

AMP Section Name:Tobacco
  • 182 Health