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Anti-tobacco activists condemn US obstructionism

by Gustavo Capdevila

Geneva, 4 May 2001 (IPS) - International anti-tobacco organisations accused the United States of obstructing the week-long discussions for drafting a convention on world tobacco control, during contentious sessions that concluded here Friday.

But the same groups praised the attitude of most developing countries toward curbing tobacco consumption, especially that of the African group of countries.

“The US contribution has been entirely negative - weakening, delaying and deleting anything that might have substance” in the agreement, according to Clive Bates, director of the UK-based Action on Smoking and Health (ASH). He suggested that the talks would be better off without the presence of the United States.

Ricardo Navarro, chairman of Friends of the Earth International and speaking on behalf of a network for the accountability of tobacco transnationals, expressed his concern that the stance of both the United States and Japan clearly benefits big tobacco.

The World Health Organisation (WHO), the sponsor of the negotiations, intends for the convention to reduce smoking-related deaths. Currently, tobacco contributes to four million deaths annually worldwide and will reach 10 million a year by 2030, if the international community does not make a concerted effort to curb consumption.

The intent of the treaty is to do so through a ban on advertising, the elimination of smuggling and regulation of cigarette packaging - and “implementing other proven measures to reduce the addiction, disease and death caused by tobacco use.”

This week’s meeting in Geneva was the second time that WHO member states have gathered to discuss the text of the framework convention.

The debate, however, was mostly limited to observations about the draft prepared by Brazilian diplomat Celso Amorim, president of the inter-governmental body entrusted with the negotiations.

The real negotiations will begin in November, when the third meeting takes place, said Amorim, who did not agree with comments from some circles that this week’s sessions had been “disappointing.”

But representatives from non-governmental organisations (NGOs) at the meeting accused the countries that are home to the big tobacco companies of continuing their efforts to water down the contents of the initiative, pointing to the economic interests involved.

The Japanese government is the principal owner of Japan Tobacco, the world’s third largest transnational in this sector, which distributes Camel-brand cigarettes in all countries except the United States, Navarro said.

Germany is home to Reemstma, a multinational firm that is expanding its markets throughout Eastern Europe, said Eva Kralikova, of the Czech Medical Association.

The United States, meanwhile, is headquarters for Phillip Morris, the largest tobacco transnational, which manufactures Marlboro cigarettes, the brand with the highest sales worldwide.

The attitude of the United States toward the convention shows that its delegates to the talks are representing the tobacco transnationals and not the interests of their own population, commented the El Salvadoran-born Navarro.

The United States has opposed or has called for postponement of discussion of every point included in the draft text that implies a change in tobacco policy or a decisive move towards controlling tobacco use, Bates said.

Delegates from NGOs commented that the US delegation seemed to lack clear instructions from their government on the tobacco question because they continued to act in an obstructionist manner throughout the week-long sessions.

According to Bates, they could be following a plan “to make sure that the tobacco treaty ends up being a series of empty resolutions.”

Navarro, meanwhile, stressed that Germany, Japan and Mexico have taken similar positions to that of the United States.

New Zealander Shane Bradbrook, speaking on behalf of a Maori anti-tobacco organisation, said that most of the countries of the West Pacific, including Australia, New Zealand, Malaysia and Pacific island nations, “are pushing for the strongest convention possible.”

Tania Amir, of Bangladesh, indicated that there is “a convergence of views from developing countries from Africa, the Caribbean and South Asia” on the matter of curbing tobacco consumption.

The nations of the developing South, said Amir, are confronting this issue “not just as a health issue but also as a human rights and development issue.”

Medard Bassene, of the Anti-Tobacco Movement of Senegal (MAT), expressed “pleasant surprise” with the work done by the group of African countries following the meeting held last March in Johannesburg, where their delegates resolved to adopt a common position.

In Bates’ opinion, the African nations constituted the most positive force during the Geneva sessions this week. They acted as a bloc and maintained firm stances on each matter, he said.

The British activist called attention to the fact that two tobacco-producing countries, Malawi and Zimbabwe, have joined in the consensus of the African continent.

Delegates from the two countries highlighted the economic assistance available to tobacco-growing countries that are willing to phase in efforts to diversify their farming sectors.

WHO officials are considering setting a deadline for the final draft of the tobacco convention for 2003.

It all depends on the document that is to be distributed to the member countries in June, and on “how effective (chairman Amorim) is in putting his personal authority behind that text,” said Bates.

But it will also depend on the leadership exercised by the WHO, which will need to be greater than what the international health body has demonstrated so far, said the ASH chief. – SUNS4890

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