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Will Governments Firewall Public Health From Big Tobacco At The Upcoming FCTC Treaty Meet?

Tobacco industry interference in its myriad sinister forms is one of the biggest obstacles to implement the legally-binding global tobacco treaty. Unless the devious designs of Big Tobacco are thwarted and the industry is held to account legally and financially for causing irreparable damage to human life and our planet, #endTobacco will continue to remain elusive. The upcoming inter-governmental meeting of the global tobacco treaty offers a historic chance to put people before profit and advance stronger measures for tobacco control.

"Together, promoting healthier lives" is the theme of the upcoming 10th session of the Conference of the Parties (COP10) to the global tobacco treaty (formally called the World Health Organization Framework Convention on Tobacco Control - WHO FCTC). This meet will be held later this month in Panama.

A media briefing recently hosted by The Network for Accountability of Tobacco Transnationals (NATT) provided a background on the pivotal role of the global tobacco treaty in saving lives, and how the tobacco industry’s tactics are trying to undermine it. Key issues and high stakes of COP10 were also in focus.

The WHO FCTC is the first international public health and corporate accountability treaty negotiated under the auspices of the WHO. It was adopted by the World Health Assembly on 21 May 2003 and entered into force on 27 February 2005. It has since been embraced by 183 countries, covering 90% of the world’s population. Its main objective is to protect present and future generations from the devastating health, social, environmental and economic consequences of tobacco consumption and exposure to tobacco smoke - BUT - tobacco industry and its nefarious designs have jeopardised lifesaving efforts of governments to save people from tobacco hazards.

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Opening the discussion, Sabina Timco Lacazzi, Legal Officer, WHO FCTC, explained that this intergovernmental meeting of the global tobacco treaty is held once every two years, to review the implementation of the treaty and take decisions to promote its effective implementation. Discussions and decisions taken at these meetings influence tobacco control policies at a national level. COP10 will be the first in-person treaty meeting in five years- the last in- person meeting (COP8) was held in 2018 in Geneva.

She listed various tactics used by the tobacco industry to thwart global efforts of tobacco control, through legal threats and actions; intimidation; lobbying and influencing policy; claiming a public health role; controversial marketing; corporate social responsibility; involvement in illicit tobacco; influencing science and/or undermining national as well as international laws.

Referring to Article 5.3 of the global tobacco treaty that addresses conflicts of interest and industry interference, Keltie Vance, Deputy Campaigns Director, Corporate Accountability shared that at COP8, a decision was passed on "maximising transparency," which asks governments, media and civil society delegates to submit declarations of conflicts of interest. COP10 is the first in-person meeting that this decision will be in effect.

She also said that implementation of Article 19 of the treaty that addresses liability can (i) recover health care and environmental costs incurred by governments for tobacco-related harms to people; (ii) create the public climate and political will to pass and enforce the lifesaving measures enshrined in the FCTC; and (iii) expose and halt misconduct, deter future misconduct, and punish wrongdoing. To date countries like Brazil, South Korea, Canada and USA have initiated liability against the tobacco industry.

Samuel Ochieng, Executive Director, Consumer Information Network (Kenya), shared examples of tobacco industry interference in Africa. It is pushing 'harm reduction products' despite there being no supporting scientific evidence that these are safer, he said. It also tries to infiltrate COP by buying tickets, giving other incentives to certain delegations, and has its own media platforms to oppose discussions and policies.

Labram Musah, Executive Director, Vision for Alternative Development (Ghana) referred to the African Tobacco Industry Interference Index Report 2023 that was created to address the urgent need for monitoring and evaluation of tobacco industry tactics, ensuring transparency in decision-making processes, and for raising awareness, empowering policymakers, and mobilising public health advocates. He called for implementation of code of conduct for government officials; requirement of the tobacco industry to submit periodic reports on manufacturing; and for a ban on the industry’s so-called "social responsibility" activities.

Irene Reyes, Tobacco Industry Denormalisation Program Officer, Southeast Asia Tobacco Control Alliance (Philippines) rued that the market is flooded with a diverse range of flavoured and trendily designed new tobacco products tailored to entice the youngsters. They are readily available on e-commerce channels at very reasonable prices. So the industry is busy building up its next line of customers, even as the older ones get wary of the ill-effects of tobacco use.

Norman Maldonado, CEO of PROESA, Research Center on Health Economics and Social Protection (Colombia) said that it has been very difficult to raise taxes on tobacco in Colombia due to tobacco industry interference. Academics have limited funding, and the tobacco industry comes in with funding to promote industry-sided 'research' (or junk science) on so-called 'harm reduction products.'

Norman rightly remarked that the tobacco industry masquerades itself as 'part of the solution' instead of the problem. He said that journalists play a critical role for social mobilisation as well as in influencing governments’ policies and decision making. They should be wary of the tobacco industry and should not echo its chants as "there is a fundamental and irreconcilable conflict between the tobacco industry’s interests and public health policy interests" (WHO FCTC Article 5.3). They should use WHO and FCTC secretariat as official resources for information and analysis rather than tobacco industry spokespersons.

The theme of COP10 is "Together, promoting healthier lives." As Lacazzi pointed out tobacco is a threat to health, life, wellbeing and environment. It is the only legal product that when used as recommended by its manufacturers kills up to half of its users. Not only more than 8 million lives are lost every year to tobacco use and exposure to tobacco smoke, but the total economic cost of tobacco use (from health expenditures and productivity losses) amounts to a whopping USD 1.4 trillion annually, with almost 40% of this cost occurring in developing countries. We have to safeguard public health from Big Tobacco.

Shobha Shukla – CNS (Citizen News Service)

(Shobha Shukla is the award-winning founding Managing Editor and Executive Director of CNS (Citizen News Service) and is a feminist, health and development justice advocate. She is a former senior Physics faculty of prestigious Loreto Convent College and current Coordinator of Asia Pacific Regional Media Alliance for Health and Development (APCAT Media) and Global AMR Media Alliance (GAMA). Follow her on Twitter @shobha1shukla or read her writings here www.bit.ly/ShobhaShukla)

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