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Medical Groups Ask Bush To Butt Out Of Tobacco Talks

by Gustavo Capdevila

Worldwide Tobacco Treaty in Two Years? (2000)
(IPS) GENEVA -- Some of the top medical associations of the United States are demanding that the government abandon the negotiations for an international treaty on tobacco control, saying its presence is undermining the efforts of other nations to produce the strong legal tool needed to halt tobacco-related deaths.

The American Cancer Society, American Heart Association, American Lung Association and the Campaign for Tobacco Free Kids issued a statement telling the U.S. negotiators "to pack their bags and go home".

The U.S. delegation is participating, along with the other 190 members of the World Health Organization, in negotiations for drafting the text of the Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (FCTC), which is slated to receive the signatures of member countries' health ministers in May.

The government representatives have until Friday to reach consensus on the FCTC text.

But Washington's representatives to the talks in Geneva have presented proposals that would not only weaken the treaty, but would also hurt the efforts of the other delegates seeking to produce an effective document, say the four U.S.-based institutions.

U.S. negotiators, for example, are fighting for a provision on a tobacco advertising ban that would be limited to the extent permitted by each nation's constitution.

Judith Wilkenfeld, director of the international program of the Campaign for Tobacco Free Kids, says there is solid scientific evidence showing that the most effective way to eliminate the influence of tobacco marketing on young people is a comprehensive ban on tobacco advertising.

The U.S. position also diverges from most other WHO member countries when it comes to health and commerce. A broad group of delegations seeks the incorporation of a treaty provision that would protect efforts to curb tobacco use from challenges stemming from international trade rules.

The developing world wants protection from potential U.S. legal action through the World Trade Organization's dispute settlement body.

"But the United States has led the fight against such a provision," says Hatai Chitanondh, president of the Thailand Health Promotion Institute, part of the Thai delegation to the negotiations.

The independent institutions agree that the treaty should "recognize that the lethal nature of tobacco products requires that they be treated differently from the beneficial products to which international trade rules normally apply."

The tobacco industry "has a long history of using trade law as a tool to thwart tobacco control policies." Several times in the 1980s and 1990s big tobacco did so with the support of the U.S. government, says Chitanondh.

The Thai expert pointed out that tobacco giant Philip Morris threatened to challenge a proposed ban in Canada "on misleading terms such as 'light' and 'mild'," used on cigarette packages and in advertising.

The tobacco company said a ban would be a violation of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), a bloc encompassing Canada, Mexico and the United States, and would run counter to international agreements on patents and trademarks.

U.S. activist Wilkenfeld said Washington's representatives in the negotiations are trying to win approval of a treaty that would have weaker tobacco control provisions than the ones that are in force in the United States itself, such as legislation on so- called second-hand smoke.

"The U.S. delegation introduced a proposal that is a smokescreen, obligating parties to neither adopt strong measures nor take action on second-hand smoke," she said.

Another U.S. initiative refers to the size of the health warnings that must be printed on each package of cigarettes or other tobacco products. While Washington says it need not exceed 13 percent of the package surface, most other countries taking part in the talks say the warning should cover at least 15 percent.

John R. Seffrin, president of the American Cancer Society, commented in a message to the Geneva meeting, "The United States is working methodically to weaken virtually every aspect of this treaty."

"The time has come for the United States to stand aside and allow the rest of the world to complete a treaty strong enough to change the course of the tobacco epidemic," Seffrin said.

Alfred Munzer, former head of the American Lung Association, said Washington has chosen to be "the handmaid of the tobacco industry and to use its power to sabotage and to weaken" the FCTC.

An organization of anti-tobacco activists, the Network for Accountability of Tobacco Transnationals (NATT), calls for the treaty to "clearly establish the tobacco industry's responsibility and liability for the harms caused by its products and hold corporations like Philip Morris, British American Tobacco and Japan Tobacco Industries financially accountable."

According to WHO estimates, there are currently some 1.1 billion smokers around the world, and by 2025 the total will surpass 1.6 billion.

Tobacco consumption causes some four million deaths each year -- through cancer, heart disease and emphysema --, but if current trends continue, the annual total will reach 10 million by 2030, with 70 percent of the victims being from developing countries.

Activist Akinbode Oluwafemi, of Nigeria's Environmental Rights Action, a NATT member, says "the vast majority of the world, led by the developing nations, remains committed to a strong, enforceable treaty that prioritizes health over tobacco industry profits."

"A few wealthy nations, led by the United States, continue to block progress in key areas, but we expect that public health will prevail," said an optimistic Oluwafemi.

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