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U.S. On The Wrong Side As Tobacco Treaty Takes Effect

by Jim Lobe

Bush Signs Tobacco Control Treaty, But Many Expect No Serious Action (May 2004)

(IPS) WASHINGTON -- Eleven days after the Kyoto Protocol to fight global warming entered into force despite staunch opposition from the Bush administration, another international treaty, this one on tobacco, took effect Feb. 27 without U.S. ratification.

The Bush administration signed the Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (FCTC) in May 2004, but has not yet sent it to the Senate for ratification. Fifty-seven countries, including most members of the European Union, Australia, Japan and other major U.S. allies, have ratified the treaty, which was adopted by the World Health Assembly (WHA) in Geneva in May 2003. Nearly 170 countries have signed it.

"Unfortunately, the United States has a long history of signing treaties and never ratifying them," said John L. Kirkwood, president and CEO of the American Lung Association (ALA). "The stakes in tobacco control are too high for this treaty to meet the same fate."

"The United States should join the nations around the world, including allies like the United Kingdom, Canada, and Mexico, that have ratified the treaty to save lives."

Although Washington signed the FCTC last May, the move was met with skepticism from public health activists who charged that Washington consistently took positions during its negotiation similar to those put forward by the tobacco industry in order to weaken the treaty.

Mere signing of treaties without ratification commits countries to support them but does not create any legal obligations to abide by its provisions.

Four years in the making, the treaty, which was negotiated under the auspices of the World Health Organization (WHO), provides "nations powerful new tools to protect the health of their citizens from the tobacco industry's deceptions and slick marketing," said Matthew Myers, president of the Washington-based Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids.

It requires ratifying nations to ban tobacco advertising, promotion and sponsorship, although the treaty provides an exception for those nations, like the United States, with constitutional constraints.

It also requires that large warning labels cover at least 30 percent of cigarette packs and prohibits false, misleading and deceptive language -- such as "low tar," "light," or "mild" -- that imply that a tobacco product is less harmful.

In addition, the treaty commits nations to protect nonsmokers from tobacco smoke in indoor workplaces; urges strict regulation of tobacco product contents; and urges governments to increase taxes on tobacco, enhance global efforts to prevent tobacco smuggling, and actively promote tobacco prevention and research programs.

It also creates a fund that can be used by poor countries to educate their publics about the hazards posed by tobacco use.

While smoking rates have generally fallen in North America and parts of Europe in recent years, they have increased sharply in developing countries as corporate tobacco giants, including British American Tobacco (BAT), Philip Morris/Altria, and Japan Tobacco International, have concentrated their promotion efforts in new markets, particularly in Asia, Central and Eastern Europe, and Latin America.

Tobacco use is currently killing approximately five million people worldwide every year, according to WHO, but that figure is expected to rise to 10 million a year within two decades, with 70 percent of those deaths in developing nations.

"This treaty will save millions of lives," according to Kathryn Mulvey, executive director of Corporate Accountability International, formerly known as Infact.

"It demonstrates that working together, the nations of the world can protect people from irresponsible and dangerous corporate practices. Attempts by Philip Morris/Altria, BAT and JTI to prevent an effective treaty from entering into force have proved futile."

Throughout the FCTC negotiating process, according to Mulvey, Washington consistently took positions designed to dilute the treaty at the behest of the major tobacco corporations, of which Philip Morris/Altria is the world's biggest.

"February 2005 is a landmark month for international cooperation on critical issues of protecting people and our natural resources, and the U.S. is missing the boat," she said.

"As both the global tobacco treaty and the Kyoto Protocol take effect with the U.S. on the sidelines, we are calling on our government to join with the global community in prioritising people's lives over the profits of giant corporations."

The 1997 Kyoto Protocol, which requires ratifying nations to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions an average of five percent below their 1990 emission levels by 2012, took effect earlier this month, 90 days after Russian ratification.

Of all the world's industrialized countries, the only two holdouts are Australia and the United States. Pres. Bush has said he opposes the treaty because it will harm the U.S. economy.

The FCTC has been considerably less controversial than the Kyoto Protocol and has indeed been one of the most rapidly embraced treaties in recent times, in part because, powerful as they are, the major tobacco companies don't wield the combined clout of the global oil, coal, and gas industry, as well as auto manufacturers and some oil-exporting nations.

Similarly, the relationship between smoking and disease has been well established, while the role of fossil-fuel emissions in warming the Earth's climate -- and the implications of that warming -- cannot be established with the same certainty.

Scores of non-governmental organizations (NGOs) that were heavily involved in the negotiation of the FCTC also helped speed ratification by exercising pressure on their governments.

The 200-member Network for Accountability of Tobacco Transnational (NATT) also played a major role in exposing and challenging attempts by the big tobacco companies to derail the treaty.

The Consumer Information Network, a NATT member in Kenya, for example, helped expose BAT's sponsorship of a beach holiday for members of Parliament, an effort apparently designed to persuade lawmakers to water down key provisions of the Tobacco Control Bill.

"This is a historic moment in the movement challenging irresponsible and dangerous corporate actions around the world," said Akinbode Oluwafemi of Environmental Rights Action in Nigera.

"It is no longer business as usual for Big Tobacco. With millions of lives at stake, we urge countries that have not yet ratified to do so without delay, particularly those that took the lead during treaty negotiations."

"Now that the FCTC will enter into force, it is crucial that governments maintain the momentum and implement efficient and life-saving tobacco control legislation," said Laurent Huber, director of the FCA, a Geneva-based international NGO coalition.

"Weak interpretation and poor implementation of the FCTC's provisions will not promote public health."

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