IT sounds like a good idea: Get the nations of the world together to agree on a treaty to curb tobacco use. But it's not so easy to accomplish, despite good intentions all around.
Delegates at a World Health Organization (WHO) conference in Geneva agreed last weekend on a text for the Framework Convention on Tobacco Control - but over the objections of the United States, Germany, and China.
The US and Germany opposed language calling for an outright ban on tobacco advertising. Washington says that would violate constitutional free-speech guarantees; Berlin objects it could foreshadow attempts to outlaw advertising for alcohol or certain foods. The document would require a ban only in those countries where it's constitutionally acceptable. But the US protested that the draft treaty's definition of advertising and promotion remains too broad.
The US had other complaints related to its unique governmental structure. It objected to a requirement that health warnings cover a minimum 30 percent of a cigarette pack, saying that would trample on Congress's prerogatives under the separation-of-powers principle. It likewise complained that a ban on free distribution of tobacco products to youth impinges on states' role in the US federal system. Lastly, Washington held that the document's unprecedented references to indigenous peoples could imply an American Indian sovereignty the US does not recognize.
The conference could have finessed the issue by adopting provisions allowing countries to opt out of individual clauses. Such "reservation" language is standard in many international accords. Instead, the assembled diplomats opted for a text they knew the US could not accept. That may lead Washington to press for changes at the upcoming WHO assembly, which could cause the whole undertaking to unravel.
It didn't have to be this way. The US is no slacker when it comes to antitobacco legislation. It has some of the toughest in the world. At this point, Washington might best let the treaty go forward without signing it. Then let's see how many nations actually implement its provisions.
If they do, so much the better. No country should need a treaty in order to do the right thing on tobacco. But the right one can help.