As more than 160 nations prepare to sign a landmark treaty to control tobacco, the Bush administration is waging a last-ditch effort to gut the accord of its strongest provisions, including a worldwide ban on tobacco advertising.
The treaty is being closely watched by Philip Morris, the world's largest tobacco company with $19 billion in sales last year, and other cigarette producers, which see it as a potential catastrophe for their businesses.
U.S. Ambassador Kevin Moley staked out the administration's hard-line position in a meeting Monday with the director general of the World Health Organization in Geneva.
A copy of Moley's position paper was obtained by the Campaign for Tobacco- Free Kids, an anti-tobacco lobbying group. Government officials confirmed that Moley delivered the document to WHO Director General Gro Harlem Brundtland.
According to the position paper, the United States wants signatories to be able to ignore any provision of the treaty they disagree with. As it stands, the treaty does not allow signatory nations to express "reservations" about individual restrictions.
Reservations is diplomacy-speak for being able to overlook certain aspects of an international agreement.
"Our ability to sign and ratify the convention is undermined by the current prohibition on reservations," the document says. "We would like your support in deleting this provision from the (treaty) prior to its approval by the World Health Assembly."
It adds: "Deletion of this prohibition will enable us, and others, to pursue the process of signing and ratifying the convention, and will facilitate the level of wide international participation necessary for the convention to be a success."
Copies of the paper are being delivered to every government taking part in the treaty talks.
The United States has been one of the few holdouts refusing to sign the tobacco treaty in May after three years of negotiations. Other fence-sitters include Germany, Japan, China and Cuba, which also have lucrative and influential tobacco industries.
Specifically, the Bush administration opposes treaty provisions that ban or greatly limit cigarette advertising and require health warnings that would take up about a third of cigarette packages.
The treaty also would urge signatories to fund anti-tobacco programs and ban distribution of free cigarette samples. Enforcement would be up to each nation to oversee.
Matt Myers, president of the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids, said the treaty as written "can save millions of lives." But he said it would be virtually meaningless if the United States succeeds in allowing nations to pick and choose which provisions to follow.
"This is a poison pill that would undermine three years of hard work," Myers said.
Tobacco accounts for 5 million deaths worldwide every year, according to health officials. The global death toll is expected to reach 10 million annually within the next three decades unless steps are taken to curb tobacco use.
The White House referred calls on the administration's position paper to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
Bill Pierce, department spokesman, insisted that the administration is eager to sign the tobacco treaty. "We'd just like a mechanism to invoke reservations we have," he said.
"This remains a fundamental issue for us," Pierce said. "We have concerns that we have to address."
Activists are worried because the U.S. position paper takes pains to emphasize all the funding that Washington provides worldwide for tobacco- control efforts.
"Many countries will interpret this as saying foreign aid is at stake if they don't go along with us," Myers said.
Pierce challenged this perception. "That's just reading between the lines," he said. "We're only making as strong a case as we can."
The treaty will be adopted one way or another. But without the United States as a signatory, it's unlikely developing nations -- where tobacco merchants are now busiest -- will find the will to enforce the pact's more stringent provisions.
Mark Berlind, legislative counsel for Altria, parent company of Philip Morris, said his firm is pushing for "a strong treaty that can be ratified by every country."
This can be accomplished, he said, not necessarily by allowing signatories to invoke reservations but by avoiding provisions that are contentious and controversial.
"It shouldn't be a question of opting out of provisions," Berlind said. "The provisions themselves should be widely agreed upon."
House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-San Francisco, and Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle, D-S.D., sent a letter to President Bush last week asking him not to weaken the tobacco treaty.
"Instead of leading international efforts to reduce tobacco use, the Bush administration has repeatedly obstructed the development of a tough international tobacco control agreement," Pelosi said Tuesday in response to the position paper. "That is unacceptable. We can and must do better."
Coincidentally, the U.S. position paper was delivered to the WHO shortly after the WHO released a major study warning that new cancer cases worldwide will surge by 50 percent to 15 million by 2020 unless governments act to turn things around.
"We can make a difference by taking action today," said Dr. Paul Kleihues, co-editor of the 350-page World Cancer Report. "We have the opportunity to stem this increase."
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