by Gustavo Capdevila

Geneva, 30 Mar 2000 (IPS) -- The world tobacco industry's three principal homes - the United States, Britain and Japan - are obstructing progress on a framework convention for controlling smoking, charge international organizations.

The three are home to the large transnationals Phillip Morris, British American Tobacco and Japan Tobacco, respectively, and "are pressing for a general convention," one that does not go into any detail, said Lucinda Wykle-Rosenberg, director of INFACT, a US non-governmental organisation (NGO).

The consequences of a weak global tobacco policy will mean that countries without the capacity or resources to establish their own regulations will continue to lag behind more-advanced nations, said Yussuf Salojee, director of South Africa's National Council against Smoking.

The disparities in equality and justice that exist between industrialized and developing countries in the health sphere will only grow worse if the Framework Convention on Tobacco Control is diluted, predicted the South African physician.

The initiative to draw up a convention on tobacco was launched by the World Health Organisation (WHO) amid growing concern about the number of smoking-related deaths around the world each year, which reaches at least one million.

Another independent group, the Network for the Accountability of Tobacco Transnationals (NATT), warned that in 2030, deaths related to tobacco addiction will reach 10 million annually, and most will be people in developing countries.

NATT maintains that developing countries, a market actively pursued by tobacco transnationals, are some of the most vehement critics of the cigarette manufacturers.

WHO held a public hearing this week in Geneva of its working group entrusted with the Framework Convention on Tobacco Control. Representatives from governments, the tobacco industry and civil society made their voices heard.

Gro Harlem Brundtland, director general of WHO, which is fighting to set up the anti-smoking convention, declared, "let us see to it that ours will be the last generation to face this scourge."

Since the working group began deliberations on the framework convention in October 1999, more than 1.7 million people have died from diseases related to tobacco use, Wykle-Rosenberg told a press conference.

The NGOs present at the hearing back a solid convention that gives priority to public health and people's lives above the economic interests of the tobacco industry, she stated.

"Unfortunately, protecting people's lives was not the message we heard from several government delegations" that spoke before the WHO working group, said Masaid Ali Sheikli, delegate from the Network Association for the Rational Use of Medicines in Pakistan.

"Public health, consumers and human rights organizations from around the world are united in our commitment to keep the tobacco industry out of this (framework convention) process, in spite of suggestions by a few countries that it has been opened to tobacco companies," he said.

Salojee emphasized the need for the convention to address advertising and promotion issues and to limit the political influence of the tobacco industry.

An international tobacco agreement such as the one being debated by the WHO must also offer consumer protection, demand full disclosure of the dangers of tobacco products, and shift the responsibility and costs for this preventable epidemic to the tobacco industry, said the South African official.

He stressed that tobacco farmers will not be hurt by the framework convention. The WHO predicts the number of smokers will expand from the current 1.1 billion people worldwide to 1.6 billion by the year 2025.

"Even if the convention were remarkably successful and managed to hold consumption at current levels, there would be no decline in demand for tobacco," Salojee said.

"Opposition to this convention is about protecting tobacco industry profits, not the livelihoods of tobacco farmers."

The real threat to the farmers comes from the technological innovations by the cigarette manufacturers.

In the past decade, they have spent hundreds of millions of dollars developing cigarettes with little or even no tobacco in them, he pointed out.

John Kapito, head of the Consumers Association of Malawi, said "the fear that farmers have under this convention should be allayed because tobacco demand will remain static and will not affect the economic situation of tobacco growing countries."

The tobacco industry exaggerates potential job losses from tobacco regulation, according to Ross Hammond, delegate from the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids, a US-based NGO.

Research done for the World Bank report shows that most countries will not see net job loss if tobacco consumption declines, said Hammond. Protecting health and protection employment are not mutually exclusive goals, stressed the US delegate.

For the first time in its 52-year history, the WHO is promoting talks among its 191 member nations for an international public health agreement.

The next meeting of the anti-smoking working group will be in late September or early October. The WHO expects the convention's text to be ready for ratification in 2003. (SUNS4639)