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Activists demand tougher anti-tobacco treaty

by Gustavo Capdevila

Geneva, 2 May 2001 (IPS) - Flaws plague the draft of an international anti-smoking treaty being discussed this week in talks sponsored by the World Health Organisation (WHO), charge civil society groups, particularly because proposed bans on tobacco advertising, promotion and sponsorship have been watered down.

The text lacks teeth in several key areas, thus it will do little in achieving the objective of significantly curbing tobacco consumption, says the Framework Convention Alliance, a network of some 100 non-governmental organisations (NGOs) from around the world.

The weeklong negotiations on the draft agreement include the participation of representatives from government, industry, tobacco farmers and anti-smoking groups.

The objective of the treaty, as summarised by Brazilian ambassador Celso Amorim, who is presiding over the talks, is “to continually and substantially reduce the prevalence of tobacco use.”

The treaty - intended to enter into force in 2003 - should “protect present and future generations from the devastating health, social, environmental and economic consequences of tobacco consumption and exposure to tobacco smoke,” says Amorim.

The debate under way at the Intergovernmental Negotiating Body of the WHO, is based on the text presented by the Brazilian diplomat, which summarises the results of the initial round of talks last October.

Amorim, a former Minister of Foreign Relations, rejects charges launched by NGOs that the text is “weak.”

He argues that the negotiations are taking place in an inter-governmental process with two basic requirements: “a convention that is meaningful, but one that also - at least in principle - is ratifiable.” The draft was written within these limits, Amorim emphasised.

[And while he had formulated the elements in the paper before the meeting, it was now for the delegations to make suggestions or put in possible changes, and hopefully out of this process, a negotiating text will emerge, he told a news briefing this week.]

Sources involved in the negotiations point out that even delegations coming from the same country hold deeply divided opinions because they include representatives from government health entities, who tend to favour a strict anti-tobacco agreement, and from industry and farming, who reject the plan outright, or will accept only a very lenient compromise.

Representatives of the Framework Convention Alliance said that they “were greatly encouraged” by the many commitments delegates expressed at last October’s meeting, which included a total ban on tobacco advertising, promotion and sponsorship, and strong measures to combat contraband.

Nevertheless, they said, they are “greatly concerned that the Chair’s text falls short in several critical areas, especially tobacco advertising and promotion,” and are calling for an “energetic and precise” agreement that is guided by the principle of protection and promotion of public health.

Smoking and tobacco use, in general, cause four million deaths annually, and if this trend continues, tobacco-related deaths will reach 10 million annually by 2030, according to WHO statistics.

As far as advertising, the anti-smoking activists maintain that Amorim’s document focuses on youth prevention alone, while “ignoring the legitimate needs of adults, especially smokers seeking to quit.”

Amorim repudiated such claims, pointing out that the draft agreement contains some very restrictive provisions, such as phasing out tobacco companies’ trans-border advertising and sponsorship of sports events.

A ban on tobacco advertising in electronic transmissions targeting people under 18 is an enforceable measure that would also limit publicity for people over 18, commented the diplomat.

One of the prickliest points included in the draft of the anti-smoking agreement involves the potential inclusion of clauses about liabilities and compensation for damages caused by tobacco use.

The matter primarily affects the big tobacco transnationals, but also those governments that hold monopolies, or at least major shares, in their domestic tobacco markets, such as Japan and China.

Amorim stressed that at a seminar convened by the WHO in April, delegates were unable to reach concrete conclusions; therefore, he said, the debate remains open.

[The draft elements has some paragraphs that take note of the possible conflicts that may come in terms of the World Trade Organization and its agreements relating to trade.

[At an NGO briefing session on 1 May, a former US trade official under the Clinton administration, Mr. Shapiro who was involved in the 1993 negotiations for the WTO, agreed that there were possible prblems and conflicts that could arise in relation to a strong anti-tobacco convention.

[While the health exceptions of the GATT 1994 and other agreements could be invoked, there may still be problems because of the ‘like product’ definition issue and other limitations, he said, in responding to a WTO official who from the floor claimed that the WTO and the GATT agreements did not come in the way of legitimate health measures, and that the latest asbestos ruling supported this.

[Mr. Shapiro also noted that while trade and liberalisation produced growth and was beneficial, liberalising trade in tobacco by lowering tariffs only increased consumption and was harmful.

[Another speaker, Mr. Chakraravarthi Raghavan of the South-North Development Monitor that developing countries would be very chary of expanding the scope of  exceptions, since they have found it was always used against them. Also, the way

the WTO and its panel processes had bundled up the obligations and interpreted them against the developing world, and against the WTO provisions that authoritative interpretations could only be done the Ministerial Conference or the General Council has made developing world very careful. Anti- tobacco and health NGOs cannot deal with their problems, unless they join hands with other NGOs in reducing the power and reach of the WTO and its system and secretariat, which are dominated by and functiioning for the benefit of the major nations, he said.] – SUNS 4888

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