Countries meet to limit big tobacco's influence

Countries meet to limit big tobacco's influence
Industry Interference seen as #1 Obstacle to Health Treaty's Enforcement

DURBAN: Representatives of 160 ratifying countries currently meeting in Durban, South Africa will negotiate guidelines for a provision in the global tobacco treaty that will determine whether millions of people get the health protections they are now guaranteed under the treaty or not.

The negotiations center on the implementation of Article 5.3 of the World Health Organisation Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (FCTC), which protects the treaty and related public health policies from tobacco industry interference.

At stake at this meeting (Third conference of parties to FCTC) is how narrowly or broadly these protections are defined. If defined broadly, ratifying countries will recognize the tobacco industry's fundamental conflict with public health, and reject collaboration with tobacco giants like Philip Morris International (PMI) and British American Tobacco (BAT). If defined narrowly, the tobacco industry could continue to gain influence with governments, and demand a seat at the table when public health policies are being framed.

"Industry interference is the number one obstacle to the implementation and enforcement of the global tobacco treaty," said Kathy Mulvey, international policy director of Corporate Accountability International. "Article 5.3 is the lynchpin of the treaty, determining whether or not countries will be able to reverse this preventable epidemic without the tobacco industry standing in their way."

The global tobacco treaty, formally called FCTC,took effect in 2005 and now protects more than 85 percent of the world's population. But efforts to implement the treaty are being systematically stymied by tobacco trans-nationals, reinforcing the importance of this week's third Conference of the Parties (COP3) in Durban, South Africa.

"Until now Kenya has been on the right track on FCTC implementation. But with recent back-pedaling of Ministry of Local Governments on smoke-free public places induced by BAT and Mastermind, Kenya has made a giant leap backwards. This confirms the need for stronger guidelines on Article 5.3 " said Samuel Ochieng of Consumer Information Network (CIN) of Kenya.

Countries with similar cases of tobacco industry interference include Nigeria, where BAT is sponsoring front groups to pose as independent stakeholders opposed to advertising bans and stringent tobacco laws, and Zambia, where the tobacco industry promotes lies that tobacco-related agriculture creates jobs and boosts economic development.

In Colombia, another country which recently ratified the global tobacco treaty, PMI and BAT are lobbying hard to pre-empt a new Health Ministry resolution on smoke-free environments. PMI bought Colombia's largest tobacco corporation in 2005 shortly after a report found that seven years was the average age when people began to smoke in the country's second largest city.

In the lead-up to the resolution's taking effect, BAT launched a so-called "youth smoking prevention" campaign as activists were organizing a series of events to expose and challenge tobacco industry's interference in public health policymaking.

To prevent abuses reported in several countries, CIN and other NATT allies and the Corporate Accountability International, a non-governmental organization with observer status at the COP, insist that the following provisions of the draft Article 5.3 guidelines would help prevent abuses:

- Prohibiting government partnership or collaboration with the tobacco industry.

- Protecting against conflicts of interest for those involved in setting and implementing tobacco control policies.

They are calling for the draft Article 5.3 guidelines to be strengthened, in order to:

- Avoid government interaction with the tobacco industry, and set strict rules of engagement for any meetings deemed to be necessary.

- Ensure transparency in government interaction with the tobacco industry and in tobacco industry activities and operations.

- Emphasize the tobacco industry's fundamental conflict with public health.

Since negotiations on the global tobacco treaty began in 1999, the tobacco industry has used its political and economic influence in an attempt to undermine, delay and water down public health measures. Japan Tobacco, for example, is 50 percent owned by the Japanese government. The Japanese Ministry of Finance is heavily represented at treaty meetings, and Japan has often played an obstructionist role.

"We are optimistic that Parties will keep the interests of our children's health closer to their heart than those of tobacco trans-nationals," said Network for Accountability of Tobacco Transnationals (NATT) Spokesperson Muyunda Ililonga, also of the Zambia Consumers Association. "But we know from experience that some will act from the pocket when the circumstance demands they act from the heart."

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