Global Efforts on Tobacco

The World Health Organization is campaigning for a global treaty to curb the promotion and sale of cigarettes. This UN body, which claims millions of people die yearly from tobacco-related illnesses, finds smoking has risen sharply in developing countries.

This humanitarian effort by WHO is admirable. Helping people to avoid addiction to a harmful product often requires a multination approach.

But the practical difficulties of drafting and ratifying such a treaty are considerable. Negotiations in Geneva recently ended with a hail of criticism aimed at those nations that are home to large tobacco companies.

The United States, along with Japan and members of the European Union, stands accused of being more concerned with the health of corporations like Philip Morris and British-American Tobacco than with public health in other countries.

There's an element of truth to that. So-called Big Tobacco still wields some economic and political clout in world capitals. But that does not mean there are not valid legal and constitutional problems raised by such proposed measures as a comprehensive ban on tobacco ads.

In the US, for example, "commercial speech," even for a legal but harmful product like cigarettes, is accorded a degree of First Amendment protection when advertising is directed at adults. But other parts of the proposed treaty are very much in line with US public policy, such as restricting advertising that targets youth.

Hopefully, an effective treaty can still be negotiated that affirms a global consensus on ways to curb tobacco promotion.

Meanwhile, nations can go much further on their own. Last week the European Parliament toughened laws on the marketing of cigarettes in EU countries and ordered a reduction of tar and nicotine levels. The new rules require that 30 percent of the front of every pack of cigarettes, along with 40 percent of the back, carry health warnings.

The decline of smoking in the US over many years shows what sustained efforts against tobacco use can accomplish. A global effort is now needed to support nations that want to prevent individuals from ever being attracted to cigarettes.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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