Tobacco convention needs more teeth

by Martin Khor

Geneva, 20 May -- Consumer and health advocates in developing countries have called on the World Health Organisation and the World Health Assembly to give more "teeth" to the proposed Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (FCTC), negotiations for which are being launched at the Assembly this week.

In order to be effective, the FCTC must address the issue of restricting the international trade of tobacco products, particularly from developed to developing countries.

A leading Third World consumer and health group, the Consumers' Association of Penang (CAP) based in Malaysia, has called on the WHO and its member states to ensure that the Convention affirms that public health in the developing countries (whose citizens are the main victims of tobacco) should take precedence over the World Trade Organisation's market access and market opening practices and principles.

Representing the views of developing-country citizen groups in a series of NGO events parallel to the World Health Assembly meetings in Geneva, CAP research officer Mary Assunta said that the aspect of international trade was the most important issue the Convention should deal with if it was to attain its aim of curbing tobacco use in the Third World.

CAP also proposed that the FCTC include a ban on the export of tobacco from OECD to non-OECD countries (following in the footsteps of the Basel Convention on hazardous wastes under UNEP), or alternatively to have a system of prior-informed consent (PIC) to regulate tobacco exports.

It also wants the Convention to have a strong liability and compensation clause, so that tobacco companies are liable to compensate victims and governments for adverse effects their products cause in any Member State of the Convention.

The World Health Assembly, at its current session in Geneva, is expected to pass a resolution establishing a negotiating body and a working group under the WHO to produce a convention by the year 2003.

Whilst the proposed convention is being widely lauded as a significant step forward, some NGOs and analysts have pointed out its scope (as spelled out in WHO documents) appears to be limited. In particular, it does not sufficiently deal with curbing the international trade in tobacco.

Smoking is one of the most important causes of preventable deaths in the world. Its dangers are well known and governments pay at least lip service to curbing it. Ironically, however, the overall rate of smoking is escalating and so too is the numbers of deaths.

In 1998, at least 3.5 million people died from tobacco use. If the pandemic is not controlled, the figure is expected to rise to 10 million by 2030 and of this 7 million deaths will be in developing countries.

According to the WHO, the FCTC would be based on the principles that tobacco causes inequities, must be considered a harmful commodity, the public has a right to know about its dangers and all sectors of society must contribute to combating the tobacco epidemic.

Under the Convention, countries will take coordinated actions to meet its aims, including protecting the young from tobacco exposure and use; preventing and treating tobacco dependence; promoting smoke-free environments; promoting healthy tobacco- free economies; strengthening women's role; enhancing the capacity of countries in tobacco control and exchanging information; and protecting vulnerable communities.

Protocols would also be set up under the Convention to address issues such as prices, smuggling, tax-free tobacco products, advertising and sponsorships, Internet advertising and trade, testing methods, package design and labelling, information sharing and agriculture diversification.

The process of developing the FCTC is expected to help mobilise support for tobacco control, raise awareness among various Ministries and the public, strengthen national laws and action, and mobilise NGOs.

Whilst lauding the aims of the Convention, some health activists see its scope as being too limited as it fails to deal with the pressures being piled on developing countries to open their markets to the giant tobacco companies of the industrial countries.

Unless the Convention becomes an effective countervailing force to unilateral trade actions (particularly by the US administration) and to the World Trade Organisation (which is used by industrial countries to get developing countries to tear down barriers to their tobacco firms to sell to and produce in the developing world), it would be unable to curb the rising trend of smoking in the South.

And that would be both ironic and tragic: since the tobacco companies lose their revenues and markets in the West as a result of many court cases against them and increasingly stringent governmental controls, they are now focusing on increasing their sales in Third World markets.

In a speech at the NGO Forum on Health, Mary Assunta said the decrease in tobacco consumption in the US and Western Europe had resulted in tobacco transnationals turning to the developing world to make up for their loss of markets.

"Whilst per capita consumption of tobacco fell 10 percent between 1970 and 1990 in developed countries, it increased 64 percent in developing countries," said Assunta. "Per capita consumption has more than doubled in Haiti, Indonesia, Nepal, Senegal and Syria, whilst it has tripled in Camroon and China.

"The bulk of the carnage in the future will occur in developing countries, with 7 million deaths a year in the 2020s."

Assunta said the FCTC is a good step forward but must go further if it is to have teeth and the most crucial point it must address is the trade aspect of tobacco.

In the West, national laws are being tightened, court cases are mounting, compensation for Medicare is being paid out by tobacco companies, and the anti-tobacco lobby is gaining ground.

"Unfortunately this has resulted in cigarettes being pushed from developed countries into developing countries," she said.

"Tobacco control actions in the North are unfortunately resulting in killing more people in the South. This is why the Convention must address the international trade aspect of tobacco."

In 1964 the US Surgeon General issued the first report declaring cigarettes a major cause of disease and daeth. Despite this knowledge, said Assunta, the US government was instrumental in forcing open markets in Asia in the 1980s -- markets that were closed to its tobacco transnationals. Japan, Korea, Taiwan and Thailand were then having their own tobacco companies with lax promotion.

"But the US used its Super 301 trade law (enabling the use of unialteral trade actions against trading partners) and prised open these markets, its tobacco companies captured the young with glitzy advertisements and sales gimmicks," said Assunta.

"The results were devastating. After the arrival of Malboro Man and other American cigarettes, smoking among the young rose significantly: from 19.5 to 32.2 percent in Taiwan, by 16 percent in Japan, and by 24 percent among Thai teenagers."

"Hence it is vital the Convention address the international trade aspect. Neither unilateral trade actions such as the US's Super 301 law nor the WTO should be used to push tobacco to developing countries, and the Convention should affirm this principle. Public health should take precedence over market access principles in trade agreements."

Assunta said the tobacco industry will campaign against this (just as the biotechnology firms campaigned against a strong biosafety protocol). However, she added, the established horrors of tobacco consumption should put the FCTC process on a stronger starting point to address the trade aspect.

She noted that WTO rules allow exceptions to free trade on health and public morality grounds, and this should enable the FCTC to address the need for trade restrictions on tobacco.

Assunta proposed that the following measures be included in the Convention:

* Ban the export of tobacco from developed to developing countries. Such a ban (from OECD to non- OECD countries) already exists for hazardous wastes in the Basel Convention under the UN Environment Programme. It should be extended to tobacco since it is the only consumer product that kills when used as intended by the manufacturer. Besides merely classifying nicotine an addictive drug, its trade should be banned to make tobacco control effective in the South.

* Export only with prior informed consent.

If an export ban is not yet possible, at least the Convention should specify that no country should be allowed to export tobacco unless there is "prior informed consent" in writing from the importing counties. Developing countries should have the right not to import tobacco if they so choose. Exporting countries must also furnish to the importing countries all knowldege and information about the product.

* Liability and compensation by manufacturers for adverse effects.

The Convention should include the principle that tobacco companies be liable for disease and death from their products in all their global markets. The compensation paid by the tobacco industry to the state and federal governments and to individual victims in the US should be an example of a similar type of liability and compensation system in the Convention. So far the US companies have remained silent about compensation outside the US.

The Convention should also promote the shift away from tobacco cultivation and production, and not only deal with control of marketing. (SUNS4440)

Martin Khor is the Director of Third World Network.

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