The top U.S. official working on an international treaty to reduce
cigarette smoking worldwide has resigned at a time when the United States
is embroiled in contentious negotiations with more than 150 countries on
how to counter the rising global use of tobacco.
Bush administration officials said yesterday that the negotiator, Thomas E.
Novotny, has stepped down for personal reasons unrelated to the
negotiations. But three people who have spoken with Novotny in recent weeks
said he had privately expressed frustration over the administration's
decision to soften the U.S. positions on key issues, including restrictions
on secondhand smoke and the advertising and marketing of cigarettes.
Novotny, a deputy assistant secretary at the Department of Health and Human
Services, led the U.S. delegation to the World Health Organization's
Framework Convention on Tobacco Control during the Clinton and Bush
administrations. The talks are aimed at developing guidelines by 2003 that
would lead to significant reductions in tobacco use worldwide.
HHS spokesman William Hall confirmed yesterday that Novotny will leave the
government in February and that a new leader will be selected for the
American delegation. But officials said that Novotny's departure "had
nothing to do with the international tobacco treaty negotiations" and that
he "simply decided he wanted to retire." Novotny, 54, did not return calls
After the second negotiating session, held in the spring in Geneva, tobacco
control activists criticized what they called significant retreats in
American positions under President Bush.
WHO officials also said the United States had taken positions opposed by
many, and sometimes most, other nations.
Three people active in international tobacco control discussions said they
have spoken with Novotny since the Geneva meeting, and that he felt
uncomfortable, and sometimes distressed, by the positions he had to defend.
The three said, however, that they did not know if those concerns led to
The latest controversy comes as the Bush administration has been defending
itself against charges that it has alienated allies by changing the U.S.
positions in a number of international negotiations, including the Kyoto
Protocol on global warming, the Germ Warfare Accord and the Anti-Ballistic
Judith Wilkenfeld of the Campaign for Tobacco Free Kids said she watched
Novotny during the last United Nations tobacco negotiating session and
could see that "he was very uncomfortable with positions he was required to
She said she has known Novotny for 10 years and that "it comes as no
surprise to me that he would retire rather than continue to argue the case
of the new administration on tobacco issues."
Another public health colleague who saw Novotny after the May negotiations
said "he was completely flattened and depressed. He was very unhappy with
the situation in his delegation."
Novotny has been a federal employee for 23 years, working as an officer in
the U.S. Public Health Service on major international and domestic issues.
Administration policies on global tobacco control have come under attack
from antismoking activists, including Rep. Henry A. Waxman (D-Calif.),
whose staff has analyzed WHO and HHS documents outlining the American
stands at the conference. Waxman accused the Bush administration of
orchestrating "a breath-taking reversal in U.S. policy -- going from global
leader on tobacco control to pulling back and advocating the tobacco
Waxman wrote a letter to Bush criticizing the changes, and other letters to
agency and department heads involved in the negotiations asking for
information on how they reached their positions for the talks. As the
ranking minority member of the House Committee on Government Reform, Waxman
is also asking for information about any meetings between federal officials
and the tobacco industry while the American positions were being put together.
In his letter, Waxman said his conclusions came from WHO minutes of the
negotiating sessions and from an HHS document detailing all amendments
proposed by the United States. The changes included proposals to make
voluntary tobacco control steps that were previously accepted as mandatory,
and U.S. opposition to a proposal requiring health warnings to be in the
language of the country where the cigarettes are sold. In addition, the
United States tried to soften language that would have restricted tobacco
advertising that appeal to children.
The HHS document also shows that the U.S. delegation opposed restrictions
on smoking on public transportation and in "enclosed public places" --
policies embraced in many U.S. states. In statements made before the second
negotiating session began, Novotny said reducing secondhand smoke was a
priority for the American delegation.
"I have received evidence that the United States is seeking to undermine
world efforts to negotiate an international agreement to reduce tobacco
use," Waxman said in his letter to Bush.
Yesterday, a spokesman would say only that HHS Secretary Tommy G. Thompson
"has said all along that he is committed to reducing global tobacco use and to
working towards an international treaty that is practical and workable for
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