Five centuries ago, the European conquistadors came upon indigenous peoples of the Americas who smoked tobacco for ceremonial purposes, a practice they adopted and which became widespread, but without the ritual aspect. Today, in tobacco's birthplace, hundreds of thousands of people die from smoking-related causes, and governments are battling companies over regulations.
In Mexico and Brazil, the region's most populous countries and where some 250,000 people die from tobacco-related causes each year, the cigarette industry was accused in 2005 of pressuring, lying and even bribing lawmakers in order to put the brakes on policies that would restrict their business.
According to the non-governmental Corporate Accountability International, based in the northeastern U.S. city of Boston, the tobacco industry is interfering in public health policy in several Latin American countries, and is attempting to block the regulations implemented in compliance with the World Health Organisation's Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (FCTC).
The first meeting of the parties to the FCTC, where financing for anti-tobacco use programmes is to be discussed, is set for Feb. 6-17 in Geneva.
Such accusations against big tobacco aren't new. A 2001 study under the auspices of the Pan-American Health Organisation concluded that in the 1990s the companies had strategies in Latin America and the Caribbean to co-opt journalists, disseminate biased medical studies, and negotiate with government authorities for looser regulations.
The indigenous rituals that involve smoking tobacco in a pipe are now difficult to find in the Americas, but every minute thousands of people throughout the region light up cigarettes and smoke them.
The health costs of this addiction represent between six and 15 percent of the region's public budgets, in addition to losses arising from work absenteeism, premature deaths, and treatment for related disabilities, says the non-governmental group Consumers International.
Since the 1990s, most of the countries in the region have regulations in place for cigarette sales and consumption, which were reinforced by the FCTC when it entered into force on Feb. 27, 2005.
The treaty establishes a ban on cigarette company advertising and sponsorship of any activities, including major sports events, and discourages interference by the tobacco industry in public health policy.
As of Nov. 8 (the deadline for participating with a right to vote in the Geneva meeting), the FCTC was ratified by just 11 countries in the Americas: Barbados, Bolivia, Brazil, Canada, Chile, Honduras, Jamaica, Mexico, Panama, Trinidad and Tobago, and Uruguay.
However, compliance with the treaty's restrictive measures has been lax, and there has even been some backsliding, according to observers. In Colombia, for example, still under debate are legislative bills to prohibit the sale of cigarettes to minors and to limit advertising, while in Mexico many shops continue to sell tobacco products to minors even though it is against the law.
Progress in tobacco control is uneven in developing countries, and it is in Latin America where demand for cigarettes is growing fastest, says Derek Yach, one of the architects of the FCTC and currently a professor of global health at Yale University in the United States.
"The outlook is mixed: one group of developing countries is advancing in the fight against smoking, like Thailand and Brazil; but another is lagging behind, probably influenced by the tobacco industry," Yach told Tierramérica.
At the same time they press for less restrictive anti-smoking legislation, the industry is working to show a face of "social responsibility" by providing financial backing for a variety of causes.
"They put on a friendly face while continuing to sell the same products that kill half of their consumers," commmented Yach.
According to various sources, the Phillip Morris and British American Tobacco (BAT) companies -- the region's leading cigarette sellers -- have deployed strategies in some countries to prevent ratification of the Framework Convention on Tobacco Control.
In an Oct. 6, 2005 report, Corporate Accountability International cites the case of Guatemala, where it says the two tobacco companies aggressively lobbied politicians and officials who were involved in debating FCTC ratification. The Central American country's national Congress ratified the treaty on Nov. 16 -- after the deadline for the right to vote at next month's Geneva meeting.
In Brazil, one of the world's three leading tobacco producers, there was pressure on lawmakers that involved a "campaign of distortion of the Framework Convention," Tania Cavalcante, coordinator of the government's National Tobacco Control Programme, told Tierramérica.
The tobacco companies argued that "the WHO and the Health Ministry wanted to ban the cultivation of tobacco," which is false, and attacked the politicians who were in favour of the treaty, she said.
Paula Johns, coordinator of the Zero Tobacco Network, a group of Brazilian NGOs, medical associations and scientists, accused the industry of acting in an "irresponsible, cruel and anti-ethical" manner.
Despite the pressure, Brazil's lawmakers ratified the FCTC in October 2005, well ahead of the deadline for voting rights at the treaty's first meeting.
In 2003, 18.8 percent of the Brazilian population were smokers, 13.2 percent less than in 1989, according to official statistics. That decline is attributed in great part to measures aimed at curbing consumption.
In contrast, in Bolivia, home to 1.2 million smokers, Fátima Calancha, head of tobacco issues for the Health Ministry, told Tierramérica that the industry did not in any way block the country's ratification of the FCTC.
In Argentina, the national Congress allowed the deadline for ratification to expire, under pressure from the tobacco-producing provinces. Nine million people out of Argentina's population of 37 million are smokers, and each year some 40,000 die from causes related to the habit.
Meanwhile, in Mexico, a governing party lawmaker accused BAT of bribing legislators with trips abroad and of manipulating figures in order to avoid a tax hike on cigarettes.
Mexico has a population of 106 million, and more than 16 million are regular smokers, according to official data.
A controversial agreement signed in 2004 between the tobacco companies and the administration of Vicente Fox, and which expires at the end of this year, stipulates that the companies will make donations to a public health fund, and that the 110-percent tax on cigarettes will not increase.
According to the governmental -- but independent -- National Institute for Public Health, that pact violates the FCTC.
(* Diego Cevallos is an IPS correspondent. With reporting by Mario Osava in Brazil, José Luis Alcázar in Bolivia and Yadira Ferrer in Colombia. Originally published Jan. 7 by Latin American newspapers that are part of the Tierramérica network. Tierramérica is a specialised news service produced by IPS with the backing of the United Nations Development Programme and the United Nations Environment Programme.)
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