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World cracks down on Big Tobacco

by Ron Scherer Thursday, May. 22, 2003 at 7:33 PM

To slow the spread of smoking, especially in poor nations, where smoking rates are soaring, the World Health Organization in Geneva voted for unprecedented and potentially deep restrictions on tobacco products.

World cracks down on Big Tobacco

Ron Scherer, The Christian Science Monitor, May 22, 2003

NEW YORK – In Hong Kong, the dance CDs put out by Marlboro could soon disappear. In Vietnam, umbrellas with "Salem attitude" painted across them may be sent to the trash. The cafes in Kiev that sport the Camel logo will probably have to change their names. And forget about those ads for Philip Morris super lights attached to airline tickets in the Czech Republic.

These are just some of the ways the advertising and marketing of tobacco may be about to change. Wednesday, in a landmark move, health officials from 192 nations unanimously approved a global health treaty - the first of its kind - that could change the face of the global tobacco industry.

To slow the spread of smoking, especially in poor nations, where smoking rates are soaring, the World Health Organization in Geneva voted for unprecedented and potentially deep restrictions on tobacco products.

The accord must still be implemented by governments worldwide, which must pass laws regulating everything from the size of health warnings (no less than 30 percent of the size of a pack) to restrictions on secondhand smoke.

It could mean some nations will ban the terms "light" or "low tar" as misleading. It encourages higher taxes to prevent children from smoking. And all those slick marketing efforts - from slinky models in magazines to sponsorship of race cars - could be history.

"This treaty has the potential to save literally tens of millions of lives over the next 25 years," says Matthew Myers, president of the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids.

The treaty, called the Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (FCTC), is controversial within the tobacco industry itself. Altria, the parent of Philip Morris, says it is in favor of the new treaty. "What we hope and expect is that this treaty can be a catalyst in every country that signs on for meaningful and effective treatment of tobacco," says Mark Berlind, associate general counsel for Altria.

But British American Tobacco, the parent of US-based Brown & Williamson, said in a statement it had "mixed" views of the treaty. The British company likes the strong provisions against smuggling and counterfeiting of cigarettes. But, it denounces the ban on advertising since it says consumers will not be able to get information on potentially safer cigarettes under development.

The treaty has been under negotiation for the last three years. During much of that time, the US was perceived as being against a tough crackdown. Kathryn Mulvey, executive director of In fact, an activist nongovernmental organization that lobbied for passage of the FCTC, termed the US position as "obstructionist."

By Saturday, the US was the last holdout and finally decided to back the treaty. Wednesday, at the WHO in Geneva, Tommy Thompson, secretary of health and human services, said "This is an outstanding day when you can stand up and make a step forward for public health."

President Bush, a spokesman says, will carefully review the treaty before making decisions.

"But our preference to sign a strong and effective treaty has not changed," says Allen Abney, a White House spokesman.

If President Bush signs the treaty, he will forward it on to the US Senate, which must ratify it. Then Congress would have to pass implementing legislation. The US successfully inserted language that exempts nations from implementing the treaty within constitutional limits. The US Supreme Court has ruled that certain forms of tobacco advertising are constitutionally protected as free speech. "The treaty is intended for countries to have flexibility for regulations and to retain sovereignty for basic policy decisions," says Mr. Berlind, who hopes the treaty starts a national debate over tobacco regulation.

Philip Morris, for example, agrees with its critics that legislation is the main way to effect change. Wednesday antitobacco forces sustained a major blow in their attempt to litigate change when a Florida appeals court overturned a 5 billion class-action verdict against tobacco companies. It said ill smokers in what is known as the Engle case could proceed individually. "We have always maintained the way to resolve issues of concern is through legislation, not litigation," says Berlind.

The WHO treaty is vague about suing tobacco companies. There is nothing mandatory, only a provision that lets each country decide on the basis of their own laws what to do about liability.

Some skeptics doubt the US will ratify the treaty, which includes requirements like warning labels that cover almost one-third of a cigarette pack and a provision that states' public health takes priority over commercial interest. British American Tobacco, in its statement, says the treaty "sets a precedent that could in future affect many other industries, such as alcohol and fast food."

If those industries and others perceive the treaty that way, lobbying in Washington will be intense. "This will be one more treaty the US does not ratify," says Clyde Prestowitz, author of a new book, "Rogue Nation," and president of the Economic Strategy Institute in Washington. "The US has spent a lot of effort and lot of time trying to open markets to tobacco."

According to the WHO, there is an urgent need for the treaty. The organization estimates there are now about 1.1 billion smokers. "In the absence of a strong treaty like this, the estimate is that the number of smokers will rise to 1.6 billion smokers in 20 years," says Myers.

Many of those smokers could face difficult health problems. WHO estimates nearly 5 million smokers die from smoking-related causes each year. By 2020, it is estimating, that will grow to 10 million people, 70 percent of them from developing countries. "This treaty is the closest thing we have to a vaccine against tobacco caused death in the developing world," says Myers.

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