Five years in, tobacco treaty is saving lives, continues to be stymied by industry, U.S. still absent

Representatives from the 168 ratifying countries of the global tobacco treaty gathered to celebrate the landmark treaty's fifth anniversary. As part of the convening, the World Health Organization (WHO) released a comprehensive report on the state of the treaty, assessing its successes to date and the challenges that remain. Read more

The civil society organizations, like U.S.-based Corporate Accountability International, responsible for mobilizing global grassroots support for the treaty were also on hand to discuss the persistent and primary threat to the treaty's full implementation: interference by the tobacco industry.

"These countries deserve a lot of credit. Each has overcome significant industry opposition and pressure to advance the lifesaving measures of this treaty," said Gigi Kellett, Challenging Big Tobacco campaign director for Corporate Accountability International. "The threat from Big Tobacco is still eminent. And still there is reason for great optimism, given the success of the treaty to date."

The treaty aims to reverse the leading preventable cause of death and disease. Each year tobacco kills 5.4 million people each year. The death toll will reach more than 8 million over the next two decades, with the majority of lives lost in developing countries. The WHO projects that strong worldwide enforcement and broad implementation of the treaty could save 200 million lives by the year 2050.

The global tobacco treaty, formally called the Framework Convention on Tobacco Control, is the world's first public health and corporate accountability treaty - and the most rapidly embraced treaty on record. It today protects 86% of the world's population.

The WHO finds that since the treaty entered into force in 2005, Parties are implementing national tobacco control coordinating mechanisms, prohibiting the sales of tobacco products to minors, and are taking measures to protect public health policies from commercial and other vested interests of the tobacco industry.

There are significant challenges to overcome. Corporate Accountability International and its allies worked with governments to secure strong treaty guidelines, insulating the treaty against corporate interference. Big Tobacco has since disregarded and worked to undermine this core component of the treaty which establishes the tobacco industry's fundamental and irreconcilable conflict of interest with public health.

Governments are standing up to tobacco lobbyists. Colombia's federal legislators barred the tobacco industry from participating in congressional negotiations of a national tobacco control law. Their exclusion accelerated this process, which led to the establishment of strong legislation with provisions in line with the global tobacco treaty.

In July 2009, during an international protocol negotiating session, Parties kicked Big Tobacco lobbyists out of the process - a move made possible by Article 5.3. Parties safeguarded the negotiations against the tobacco industry's fundamental and irreconcilable conflict of interest, sending a strong message to the industry.

Notably absent from the treaty, is the U.S., the country that has been at the heart of global tobacco trade since its beginnings. Though former President George W. Bush took a step toward enacting the treaty and signed it in 2004, he never submitted it to the Senate for a vote. While in the Senate, President Obama twice sent official correspondence to the White House calling for the treaty's submission.

Further, the President signed a law this summer giving the FDA regulatory authority over tobacco. This bill positions the U.S. to meet its obligations under the treaty were it to sign.

"It's time for the United States to join the global community and reclaim a leadership role in taking on the tobacco epidemic," said Kellett. "This treaty will outlast all of us, setting not only a strong standard for tobacco control but also a powerful precedent for safeguarding democracies against the interference and abuses of powerful industries."

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