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World: WHO Starts Talks On Tobacco Treaty

UN Wire
October 18th, 2000

Government representatives began discussions Monday in Geneva on a proposed anti-tobacco treaty for preventing smoking-related deaths, which are predicted to reach 10 million annually by 2030.

The World Health Organization, which is conducting this week's talks, convened public hearings last week on the Framework Convention on Tobacco Control, receiving support from health organizations and tobacco companies (Claire Nullis, Associated Press, 16 Oct).

"In the past, there were times when we resisted regulation and viewed it as inappropriate, but that was probably a mistake on our part," said David Davies, vice president for corporate affairs at Philip Morris International (Ron Scherer, Christian Science Monitor, 16 Oct).

WHO officials and anti-smoking campaigners remain skeptical about the tobacco companies' promise to support the convention. Derek Yach, head of the WHO's anti-tobacco program, said last week that the tobacco industry would probably lobby governments to resist proposals such as raising excise duties and banning advertising and sponsorship by tobacco companies (Nullis, AP).

Tobacco growing countries in the developing world and cigarette producers have already said they oppose any reduction or prohibition of production (Agence France-Presse, 16 Oct).

During this week's talks, government officials will attempt to narrow down numerous options for the treaty contained in an initial draft text. Some of the convention's possible measures for reducing tobacco-related health problems include:

Internationally determined minimum tax rates for tobacco products, with a ban on duty-free sales and an excise tax of at least two-thirds of the package price; Programs to reduce sales to youth; Protection for nonsmokers' health in public places; Restrictions or bans on tobacco marketing, sponsorship and advertising; International cooperation to combat smuggling; Listing cigarette ingredients with restrictions on labeling such as "low tar" or "light" that make one product seem less harmful than another; Package illustration to show smoking's harmful effects (Nullis, AP).

Matt Myers, president of the Washington-based Campaign for Tobacco Free Kids, referred to the treaty as "the single most significant action ever proposed to reduce tobacco use worldwide" (Scherer, Christian Science Monitor).

Action on Smoking and Health Foundation, a Thai organization, supports the proposal to ban duty-free sales of cigarettes, saying free trade practices should not apply to tobacco. "Since tobacco is addictive and harmful, normal trade practices should not apply to tobacco," said the foundation's director, Bungon Ritthiphakdee (Bangkok Post, 16 Oct).

Another Asian organization, the Penang Consumers Association, complained about aggressive marketing campaigns by tobacco companies that target youth, especially young girls (Bangkok Post II, 16 Oct).

Negotiations Expected To Last 18 Months

Negotiations on the convention are expected to be difficult and long, estimated to last a year and a half. "It will be very tough negotiating. There will be well over 100 countries involved, and the tobacco industry has longstanding ties with many people in government," says Richard Daynard of the Northeastern University School of Law in Boston.

Countries that consume large amounts of cigarettes, such as China, rely on tobacco revenue. Developing countries such as Malawi also depend on tobacco, as it is one of their main crops (Scherer, Christian Science Monitor).

Japan's representatives at the WHO meetings will look to soften the terms of the proposed global pact, advocating allowances for individual countries, Asahi News Service reports. Japan's Ministry of Finance and the Japanese tobacco industry are resisting further tobacco regulation, with the finance ministry calling moves to raise tax rates on tobacco as "breaching national sovereignty." Japan collects $22.2 billion each year in revenue from tobacco (Asahi News Service, 16 Oct).

In August, the WHO released a report blaming large tobacco companies including Philip Morris, Japan Tobacco, and British American Tobacco, of blocking the agency's efforts to reduce global tobacco consumption (Bangkok Post II).

There are now 1.1 billion smokers worldwide, with 80% in the developing world. The WHO has made its anti-smoking campaign one of its priorities, as cigarettes kill more than 4 million people a year. "More people worldwide are expected to die from tobacco-related illness over the next 30 years than from AIDS, automobile accidents, maternal mortality, homicide and suicide combined," a group of US health organizations said during last week's hearings (Nullis, AP).

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