10th IWR: protect public health policies from tobacco industry interference

This year's 10th International Week of Resistance to Tobacco Transnationals (10th IWR), which began on Monday, the 4th of October was kick started by Tobacco industry watchdog, Corporate Accountability International, Network for Accountability of Tobacco Transnationals (NATT) and its allies, releasing a new report documenting widespread tobacco industry interference in the implementation of the global tobacco treaty (formally known as the World Health Organization Framework Convention on Tobacco Control - WHO FCTC). The IWR Week is part of the ongoing efforts to bring together anti-tobacco groups to expose industry obstructionism in implementing tobacco control policies in countries around the globe. It provides an opportunity for the global community to speak out in solidarity. Read more

Is it a mere coincidence that during this week only, Global Tobacco Networking Forum (GTNF-2010), a large-scale tobacco industry event termed as the "greatest tobacco talk show on earth", is being held in Bangalore in India? This  is a global industry meet of the top tobacco producing and manufacturing companies, to discuss ways to increase and improve production of tobacco worldwide.

The Tobacco Board, a Government of India entity under the Ministry of Industry and Commerce, was unashamedly a sponsor to this event, in direct contravention of Article 5.3 of the global tobacco treaty (FCTC) to which India is a signatory.

Article 5.3 of the global tobacco treaty FCTC obligates ratifying countries to protect their health policies from tobacco industry interference. 

The Institute of Public Health (IPH), Bangalore, filed a Public Interest Litigation (PIL) as this sponsorship violated international laws and obligations under the World Health Organization Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (WHO FCTC) and national laws like the Cigarettes and Other Tobacco Products Prohibition Act, 2003. The court order dated 17 September 2010, said Dr Upendra Bhojani of Institute of Public Health (IPH), asked the Government of India's Tobacco Board should take back Rs 326,620 from this event (GTNF-2010) if the money has been given already, if not, then no money should be given by the Tobacco Board of the government to this event. Dr Bhojani said, that the court order of 17 September 2010 also said that the logo of the Government of India's Tobacco Board should be removed from tobacco industry event's (GTNF-2010) website.

In an exclusive interview given to CNS, Dr. Upendra Bhojani, petitioner of the PIL and a public health researcher at the IPH shared his euphoria over this small but significant victory of public health advocates.

Explaining the sequence of events he said that they came to know of the involvement of the Government of India's Tobacco Board in this conference (GTNF-2010) in April 2010. Thereafter an application was filed by them under the Right To Information (RTI) Act, seeking complete information on the issue. Their fears were not unfounded. The Tobacco Board had not only allowed its logo (as one of the co-sponsors) to be used by the tobacco industry's event - GTNF-2010, it had also provided financial support of over Rs 326,620 for the said conference. This direct involvement of a government agency, in gross violation of Article 5.3 guidelines of the global tobacco treaty (FCTC), sent out the message that the government was indirectly supporting the policies of tobacco industry for expanding its trade of peddling poison.

A mass movement was launched at the behest of IPH, Bangalore, and other social organizations. More than 37,000 signatures were collected as part of the campaign demanding that the Tobacco Board withdraw its financial and moral support to the event, and that the government should not be a party to any pro-tobacco activities that jeopardize public health. A Public Interest Litigation (PIL) was filed by The Institute of Public Health (IPH), Bangalore, in the Karnataka High Court against this sponsorship of the Tobacco Board. On September 17, a bench comprising Honorable Justice Shailendra Kumar passed a landmark order for the Tobacco Board to withdraw all kinds of sponsorship and support from the event, said Dr Upendra Bhojani. The order passed by the high court asked the Tobacco Board to remove its logo from the website of the organizers and to withdraw any financial support provided to the event, said Dr Upendra Bhojani.

The order noted that "…the board keeping company with them (cigarette manufacturers of leading brands across the world) itself may amount to conveying a message that the board is in league with such companies in promoting their products which is most undesirable.... they (the Tobacco Board) are to be restrained as the very participation is not a desirable act…it will be against public health, which cannot be compensated later."

The court ruled that "…while the board can continue to promote tobacco industry in other areas, but not related to human consumption of tobacco leading to the affectation of the health of the general public…"

In the words of Dr Bhojani, "It's a great victory for we had been campaigning against the Government sponsorship for months on end, especially now, when the logo has come off the website."

IPH has got an order that will prevent the Government of India's Tobacco Board from participating in the event. The organization is also looking at challenging the mandate of the tobacco board in sponsoring such events in the future. Bhojani said, "Tobacco has transcended beyond a medical issue. It has even gone into becoming a legal issue. So it's a deadly evil that has many sides but it can be controlled and that is what we're aiming for."

The government as well as other stakeholders should not forget that Article 5.3 of FCTC clearly states that "parties should not accept, support, or endorse the tobacco industry organizing, promoting, participating in, or performing, youth, public education or any initiatives that are directly or indirectly related to tobacco control."

What's at stake are as many as 200 million lives - the number of lives the World Health Organization projects would be spared by 2050 if the treaty takes full effect.

Shobha Shukla - CNS
(The author is the Editor of Citizen News Service (CNS) and also serves as the Director of CNS Gender Initiative and CNS Diabetes Media Initiative (CNS-DMI). She has worked earlier with State Planning Institute, UP, and teaches Physics at India's prestigious Loreto Convent. Email: shobha@citizen-news.org, website: www.citizen-news.org)

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