New tobacco draft too weak to reverse global epidemic, say NGOs

Geneva, 16 Jan (Kanaga Raja) - The US-based corporate accountability watchdog Infact, along with about 75 other NGOs advocating a strong tobacco control treaty, have denounced the latest draft of the treaty as being to weak to reverse the global tobacco epidemic.

[Meanwhile, a number of developing country governments and delegations, who were presented with the new chair’s text are also very critical - viewing some of the proposals as favouring the large tobacco corporations and undercutting the efforts in countries to ban advertising and promotion.

[In the wake of the outcome of handing over public health, patents and essential drugs issues to be negotiated to the GATT (resulting in TRIPS, and the way the Doha declaration is being sought to be used to promote the interests of PhRMA, and the declaration scope diluted and made meaningless by the US and EC), a number of developing countries are weighing their options on how to strengthen the framework treaty provisions on advertisement bans, national and transborder, and trying to ensure that it must prevail over the WTO and its provisions.

[At a World Health Assembly meeting where the issue of tobacco trade and health consequences came up some years ago (before Mrs. Brundtland took over), the US health representative was pulled out of the meeting, and a State Department/Trade representative told the Assembly that trade rules must prevail over health.

[Developing countries, many of whom are now having legislation before their parliaments for action against tobacco and advertisements, considering the health costs of smoking, want to ensure that the WTO does not upset the whole public health exercise, as it is doing in the case of essential drugs.]

A new draft text of the Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (FCTC) was tabled by the Chair of WHO’s Intergovernmental Negotiating Body (INB), Brazil’s Ambassador Luiz Felipe de Seixas Correa, on Wednesday. Mr Seixas Correa and the WHO head presented it Wednesday to delegations, and later to the media. The text is to form the basis of negotiations at the last session of the INB on 17-28 February.

Infact and the 75 other civil society groups comprising the Network for Accountability of Tobacco Transnationals (NATT) have charged that the new draft treaty text slides backwards from the positions advocated by the great majority of countries in key areas such as tobacco promotion and prioritizing public health over trade in tobacco.

One of the most serious examples of backsliding, the NGOs point out, is that the current draft calls into question the tobacco industry’s responsibility for the harms its products cause. According to Infact and NATT, the FCTC must include strong liability and compensation provisions to deter tobacco corporations from future harms and hold them accountable for their past egregious behaviour.

“At the most recent round of treaty talks, we saw that the great majority of nations in the world are committed to an FCTC that prioritizes public health over the profits of transnational tobacco corporations,” said Kathryn Mulvey, Executive Director of Infact, which has Official Relations status with the WHO and is member of NATT.

However, according to Mulvey, rather than building on the progress made at the October talks, “the Chair seems to have given in to the demands of a handful of wealthy nations - namely the US, Japan and Germany - in some of the treaty’s most critical areas.”

The groups note that when the FCTC negotiators last gathered in October 2002, the overwhelming majority of countries were strongly in favour of a total ban on tobacco advertising, promotion and sponsorship.

Only a handful of countries where the tobacco transnationals have major interests, led by the US, Japan and Germany, opposed an ad ban. The groups complain that far from prohibiting tobacco promotion, the new draft is reduced to a series of suggestions essentially deferring action on this urgent measure.

The FCTC also has the opportunity to establish a precedent of subordinating commercial interests in a deadly product to health concerns. However, the current draft fails to take a decisive stand in prioritizing public health over trade in tobacco, the civil society groups argue.

At the most recent talks more than 100 countries were advocating treaty language that would prioritize public health when the FCTC comes into conflict with international trade and investment agreements. But, according to the groups, the new text does not include any language that would prioritize health over trade.

“Having analyzed the new Chair’s Text of the FCTC released today, we are deeply concerned that it falls far short of measures necessary to reverse the global tobacco epidemic and hold tobacco transnationals accountable for the harms they cause to people, economies and the environment,” said Akinbode Oluwafemi of Environmental Rights Action, Nigeria, also a NATT member.

For example, the treaty draft fails to prioritize public health over trade, and does not include the total ban on tobacco advertising, promotion and sponsorship advocated by many countries - including the African and South East Asian regions, and 24 European countries, Oluwafemi added.

Infact and NATT believe that the FCTC must:

*        Prioritize public health in the event of conflict with international trade and investment agreements;

* Ban all tobacco advertising, promotion and sponsorship;

*        Protect public health policy from interference by tobacco corporations;

* Ensure that tobacco corporations can be held liable for harms to people and the environment, while facilitating the ability of individuals and governmental bodies to be compensated for the high costs of tobacco;

* Establish funding mechanisms to speed up conversion to sustainable alternatives to tobacco and make it more politically viable for governments to support the FCTC; and

* Contain binding obligations with specific timelines, and penalties for non-compliance, rather than voluntary measures.

The groups point out that on a positive side, the Chair’s draft of the FCTC includes provisions for monitoring the tobacco corporations, their affiliates and subsidiaries like Philip Morris’s Kraft Foods.

The text also calls for the protection of public health policy from tobacco industry interference. According to Infact, Philip Morris, Japan Tobacco and BAT have used their influence to water down and defeat public health policy even in the wealthiest countries.

Nearly 5 million people die every year from tobacco-related illnesses, according to the WHO.

“As we enter into the final round of treaty talks next month, Infact and NATT are calling on treaty negotiators to ask themselves whether the Marlboro Men of the transnational tobacco industry can live with this treaty. If the answer is yes, then the world is in danger of having wasted years of time and precious resources,” said Mulvey.

The Infact Executive Director warned that yielding to pressure from the US,  Japan and Germany will put the interests of Philip Morris, BAT and Japan Tobacco before the public health of people around the world. – SUNS5264

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