As the World Health Assembly began debating a resolution to begin negotiations on the proposed Tobacco Treaty, several international non-governmental organisations have accused the body of soft-pedalling and not raising the stakes when it can. The NGOs criticise the current resolution for being ‘process-oriented’ instead of taking real, decisive steps forward, and worry that the final Tobacco Treaty will have no ‘biting obligations’.

By Someshwar Singh

June 2000

Geneva: As the World Health Assembly (WHA) began debating a resolution to begin negotiations on the proposed Tobacco Treaty here on 19 May, several international non-governmental organisations have accused the body of soft-pedalling and not raising the stakes when it can.

At a press briefing on 18 May, an executive director of the World Health Organistion, Dr Derek Yach, announced the holding of public hearings on the emerging Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (FCTC) on 12 and 13 October 2000 in Geneva. The FCTC is the world’s first public health convention and is expected to be opened for signature in 2003.

The hearings, to which all interested parties - including the tobacco industry - are invited, will come just two days before the start of the formal negotiations. However, not a single tobacco TNC has registered up until now; reportedly they are only making inquiries about the process of the hearings.

This is the first time in its 51-year history that the WHO’s member states have embarked on the negotiation of a convention.

Responding to a charge by the NGOs that the current resolution on tobacco in the WHA was exclusively ‘process-oriented’, Dr Yach admitted that the first part of the resolution was indeed procedural and had ‘no content’. It related to the calls for an international regulatory body that could manage the new Convention. The second part of the resolution, he said, dealt with a global strategy to combat non-communicable diseases, including those caused by tobacco.

What the NGOs wanted the resolution to do, instead, was to take substantive steps. They believed that much was achieved already at the two Working Group meetings to develop measures to restrict tobacco advertising and promotion, hold corporations accountable for their complicity in illicit tobacco trade, and begin to protect national legislation from industry interference.

‘The reluctance to move forward decisively and aggressively at every phase can only mean that Philip Morris and other tobacco transnationals are throwing their weight around with national delegations and the World Health Organisation itself,’ said Kathryn Mulvey, executive director of INFACT, a US-based NGO. ‘This backsliding is surprising. And even this mild step (of procedural details) faces objections from the US and other countries where Big Tobacco’s influence is strongest.’

According to the NGOs, it would be convenient for the tobacco multinationals, as well as the governments supporting them, to see a Treaty that has no ‘biting obligations’.

In the last 25 years, according to WHO’s Tobacco Free Initiative, ‘16 WHO resolutions on several aspects of tobacco control (were adopted) with varying degrees of success’. During the same period, the tobacco-related deaths have increased from one million a year to four million a year today. And WHO predicts these death rates will increase to 10 million a year by the year 2030.

Oronto Douglas, whose organisation, Environmental Rights Action (ERA), has just launched a campaign challenging the tobacco industry in Nigeria, said, ‘The tobacco transnationals are clearly threatened by the momentum towards global standards that will curb their power, so they are trying to throw water on the spark before it sets a fire. But things are already ablaze.’

ERA’s Nigeria campaign has generated a dramatic response from British American Tobacco (BAT), the British-based world’s number two TNC after Philip Morris, which is headquartered in the United States. BAT has reportedly hired a public relations firm that is disputing the World Bank’s conclusion that tobacco control policies are a net economic benefit, and is attempting to intimidate journalists reporting ERA’s campaign.

Among the famous brands marketed by BAT are Rothmans, Benson & Hedges, and 555, while those sold by Philip Morris include the leading brand Marlboro and one called Parliament - said to be popular in Eastern Europe. Japan Tobacco, on the other hand, is said to own the Camel brand.

Interestingly, Douglas was reportedly asked by the WHO secretariat to delete any direct references to three countries - Britain, the United States and Japan - in his address to the WHA on 19 May. Thus his address now refers to ‘countries of power’ instead of actually naming the above three countries.

‘The deafening din by the tobacco lobby, which has gripped many countries of power, may have encouraged delegates from some countries to work for a meaningless treaty - at least that is what our reading of their comments and strategies is since the FCTC discussions began,’ says Douglas. ‘This is not good for today, and we are convinced it will not augur well for the survival of our tomorrow.’

Urging the health ministers and senior government officials to do what is right, Douglas said, ‘We know that corporate lobbyists descended on the Palais (the UN complex in Geneva where the WHA is meeting). We know who pays them. We know that the objective is to make the Tobacco Treaty not worth the paper on which is is written. Clearly, the stakes of profit are being hoisted over and above environmental and livelihood considerations.’

‘It is not too late for the Treaty to consider the relationship between weak and strong countries in the matter of trade and choice,’ Douglas added. ‘Powerful countries largely governed by corporations hide under sovereignty and free trade as they unleash poverty and destitution on the powerless.’

The NGOs are also concerned that resistance is now building against a provision in the draft resolution to extend participation to them. The active involvement of INFACT, ERA, the National Commission Against Tobacco-Honduras (CONACTA) and other NGOs in Geneva apparently demonstrates why the tobacco giants want to shut NGOs out of the FCTC.

‘Grassroots resistance is chipping away at the tobacco transnationals’ hold over governments and public health policy,’ says human rights activist Dr Juan Almendares of CONACTA. ‘More than one and half million people will die of tobacco-related illnesses between now and the kick-off of negotiations in October. Delaying the process will only serve the interest of Philip Morris and other tobacco transnationals - at the expense of victims of tobacco use.’

Fighting the power of the tobacco TNCs appears to be a formidable challenge. The profits of the leading TNC Philip Morris, which has also branched into the Kraft Food subsidiary, in 1999 are reported to have been $7 billion. The revenue of the company is estimated to be larger than the gross domestic products (GDPs) of Ecuador, Guatemala, Kenya, Kuwait, Malaysia or Peru.

But it is not just the private corporate TNCs in the tobacco business - states are also involved intimately in many cases. At the press briefing, WHO’s Dr Yach stated that many national delegations came representing national state monopolies. Such, for example, was the case with China, Japan and Korea, he said.

Asked why WHO appeared to adopt two different approaches when collaborating with the private corporate sector - more willing and spontaneous in the case of finding cheaper AIDS drug alternatives with the pharmaceutical TNCs, but going a rather roundabout way when trying to establish bridges with the tobacco TNCs, Dr Yach (the WHO Executive Director) said that like the vegetable and fruit industry, the pharmaceutical industry was one that helped save lives. In contrast, the tobacco companies killed people. - Third World Network Features


The above article first appeared in SUNS (Issue No. 4672).