Alert to protect global tobacco treaty ahead of COP-II in Thailand [Archives:2007/1062/Health]

June 25 2007

Bobby Ramakant
[email protected]

The second Conference of Parties (COP-II) meeting about the World Health Organization's Framework Convention on Tobacco Control – the first global public health and corporate accountability treaty, which Yemen ratified on February 22 – will begin at the end of this month in Thailand.

Corporate Accountability International (CAI, formerly In Fact) has played a key role as a civil society watch organization, along with the Network for Accountability of Tobacco Transnationals, from the initial discussions of the treaty. It continues to play a pivotal role in monitoring the tobacco industry and gathering evidence to protect public health.

At the forthcoming COP-II meeting, CAI will release a groundbreaking report compiling evidence from civil society members worldwide in outlining the three major issues impeding the convention's implementation. These three public health challenges are:

– Protecting public health policy from tobacco industry influence

– Preventing tobacco industry interference in agricultural diversification and alternative crops to tobacco

– Ensuring full funding of the treaty's implementation program

There is an emerging powerful consensus among health advocates and public officials around the world that the tobacco industry should have no influence on public health policies and the treaty enshrines this concept in international law.

Article 5.3 of the treaty obligates parties to “protect [public health] policies from commercial and other vested interests of the tobacco industry.” Allowing tobacco corporations to influence tobacco control policy violates both the spirit and letter of the convention.

Unfortunately, Big Tobacco's interference in health policy continues to be one of the greatest threats to the treaty's implementation and enforcement. Philip Morris/Altria, British American Tobacco and Japan Tobacco use their political influence to weaken, delay and defeat tobacco control legislation around the world. While the industry claims to have changed its ways, it continues using sophisticated methods to undermine meaningful legislation.

Transnational tobacco corporations have supported and sustained a production system that has undermined human health and stifled human development. Therefore, in keeping with World Health Assembly Resolution 54.18 and Article 5.3 of the treaty, these corporations shouldn't be at the table discussing alternatives to tobacco production.

Acting as a mouthpiece for the tobacco industry, the International Tobacco Growers Association and its country chapters have spread misinformation and attempted to influence tobacco growers in countries such as Brazil, Argentina, India, South Africa, Zimbabwe, Malawi and Kenya as a strategy to slow down or block the treaty's ratification and implementation.

The international tobacco association's chief executive spoke on behalf of eight government and non-governmental organizations at the public hearing on agricultural diversification and alternative crops to tobacco held in Brazil in February, claiming to represent governments and farmers, while neglecting to reveal its connection to tobacco transnationals.

Tobacco is the world's leading cause of preventable death – killing five million people annually. The generous commitment by New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg marks a major change in the landscape for global tobacco control. His $125 million gift represents four times the 2006-2007 biennial budget of WHO's Tobacco-Free Initiative.

Tobacco control advocates in priority countries should tap into this funding for their policy, media and monitoring initiatives. Both governments and NGOs can apply.

All countries benefit when the cycle of dependence on tobacco is broken. Additionally, tobacco control policies have been shown to be good for the world's economies.

The World Bank estimates that high-income nations spend up to 15 percent of their health care budget to treat tobacco-related illnesses. In 2002, China spent $3.5 billion on healthcare costs attributable to tobacco. If these costs were reduced just 20 percent, China could afford to hire more than half a million additional primary school teachers.

Wealthy nations that have chartered, assisted and benefited from international expansion of tobacco transnationals bear a responsibility to make transition away from tobacco-dependent economies viable.

Political realities in the developing world also make assistance pragmatic and could help speed the treaty's implementation. Japan paid $87 million in 2006 to support WHO – more than any other nation – yet Japan's support of WHO represents only 10 percent of its share of Japan Tobacco's annual profits.

Seventy-nine percent of the world's tobacco was sourced in developing nations in the late 1990s, up from 52 percent four decades earlier. However, countries that have most aggressively embraced tobacco production haven't seen advances in their development. Only five of the 125 tobacco exporting nations derive more than 5 percent of their export income from tobacco.

Five nations are concentrated at the bottom of UNDP's 2006 Human Development Index: Uganda (ranked 145 out of 177 nations); Zimbabwe (which derives nearly a third of its export income from tobacco and ranks 151 out of 177); the United Republic of Tanzania (ranking 162 out of 177); Malawi (which derives more than half of its export income from tobacco and ranks 166 out of 177); and the Central African Republic (ranking 172 out of 177).

Far from being a path to prosperity, tobacco production paves the way to poverty.

Let's hope that the three concerns raised by CAI's evidence-based report ( to be released at COP-II later this month will receive due attention.

Bobby Ramakant is a senior journalist and a member of the Network for Accountability of Tobacco Transnationals.