GENEVA -- Warning that delay means more deaths, World Health Organization chief Gro Harlem Brundtland urged governments Tuesday to agree to sweeping anti-smoking restrictions and tighter controls on the tobacco industry.
Kicking off a new and decisive round of talks on a proposed tobacco treaty, Brundtland unveiled a "death clock" showing that more than 11.9 million people have died from smoking related disease since negotiations began three years ago.
"The tick of the clock is constant," Brundtland said. "The death rates are not. They are going up as we speak."
WHO revised the annual death rate last week, from 4 million to 4.9 million, saying this reflected new studies in India and China. The U.N. health agency said that as a result, its forecast of 10 million annual deaths by 2030 is an underestimation.
In a speech to delegates at the 192-nation negotiations, Brundtland renewed appeals for an advertising ban, stiff tax increases and tough restrictions on secondhand smoke as the best way to slow the increasing death toll.
Despite her pleas, it is likely that the so-called Framework Convention on Tobacco Control -- due to be adopted by WHO's annual assembly next May -- will take a more gradual, flexible approach.
A draft text put together by negotiating chairman Luis Felipe de Seixas Correa merely commits governments to "adopt and implement effective legislative ... measures to reduce, with the view to gradually eliminating the advertising, promotion and sponsorship of tobacco products."
The United States has led opposition to a total advertising ban, saying it would be unconstitutional.
The draft text recognizes that fiscal policy is a national matter, but encourages governments to use tax hikes "to achieve a progressive reduction in tobacco consumption," and to gradually restrict duty free sales.
It goes on to urge governments to provide "adequate protection" against secondhand smoke in public places, on public transport and at work.
De Seixas Correa, a Brazilian diplomat, maintains that his document represents the "middle ground" between the differing national viewpoints and is a compromise between public health ideals and political and commercial realities.
The United States, Japan and Germany, all of whom have powerful tobacco lobbies, are widely seen as the main holdouts to a tough treaty. Most African and Asian countries want strong controls, arguing that they are the main targets of the sales drive by tobacco multinationals.
The Geneva talks last through to Oct. 25. There will be one final round next February.
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