Convention could set global limits on tobacco industry
May 1, 2001
This week, governments from around the world are gathering in Geneva to face the threat that tobacco poses to the health of millions. The officials are working on the second round of negotiations for the Framework Convention on Tobacco Control. This landmark treaty could set global limits on the tobacco industry's advertising and promotion, and curtail its political influence by prohibiting lobbying on public-health measures.
Clamoring for a seat at the bargaining table is Philip Morris, the world's largest and most profitable tobacco company.
But through decades of deceit, the company and the rest of the tobacco industry have disqualified themselves from a role in the treaty process or in public-health policy.
Since negotiations began last fall, Philip Morris and British American Tobacco have been meeting with governments from Latin America to Africa, hoping to extract the teeth from the treaty.
Philip Morris and British American Tobacco have not only tried to undermine the World Health Organization (WHO), but have also hampered the ability of sovereign nations to pass effective tobacco-control and public-health measures, according to a 2001 report by Infact, an international corporate-accountability group.
And in a 1989 memo released during litigation, a Philip Morris executive boasted that "in the Philippines, we have successfully delayed the passage of national legislation and, more recently, local legislation." Aggressive lobbying in the Philippines continues today.
Those companies also contributed to the failure of legislation to eliminate tobacco advertising in Uruguay in 2000. And this year, tobacco transnationals were successful in reversing a ban on tobacco advertising and promotion in the United Arab Emirates.
Such measures would eliminate popular icons like the Marlboro Man, which is arguably one of the more influential figures contributing to teen smoking.
This year, 4 million people will die worldwide from tobacco-related diseases, according to the WHO. The organization estimates that by 2030, tobacco will be the world's leading cause of death, responsible for 10 million deaths a year. Seventy percent of those deaths will occur in developing countries.
With annual revenues of $63 billion, Philip Morris, which also owns Kraft Foods, has revenues larger than the GDP of many countries, including the Czech Republic, Hungary, New Zealand and Pakistan.
With this kind of clout, Philip Morris can throw its weight around with impunity. A recent survey of public-health advocates in 31 countries conducted by Infact found that more than 70 percent of those countries have no laws requiring disclosure of lobbyists, lobbying expenditures or the political contributions of tobacco corporations.
In March, health officials from 21 African countries issued a declaration stating concern about the tobacco industry's efforts to undermine tobacco-control policies in Africa. They called for a global-monitoring mechanism on the political activities of tobacco transnationals.
Though many people may not yet have heard about the treaty negotiations, international support for the treaty -- and for holding tobacco companies accountable -- is rapidly gaining momentum. Right now, thousands of people in more than 30 countries are participating in the International Weeks of Resistance to Tobacco Transnationals, a worldwide protest against the industry's interference in public policy.
The Framework Convention on Tobacco Control is an opportunity to set important precedents for accountability of transnational corporations. This week, governments from around the world must show that they have the will to stand up to a highly profitable, deadly industry.
Lucinda Wykle-Rosenberg is associate director of Infact in Boston, and Ricardo Navarro is chair of Friends of the Earth International and director of the Salvadoran Center for Appropriate Technology. They can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.