Global effort to curtail smoking hits milestone

Forty nations have ratified international treaty requiring warnings and limiting ads.

On Mexican billboards, drivers can still see the Marlboro Man, Philip Morris's masculine image of a smoker.

Television stations in Ghana carry a hip-hop contest sponsored by British American Tobacco.

And during its promotions in Sri Lanka, Benson and Hedges gives away cellphones, cigarette lighters, and hats.

Now, those practices are close to being over. The World Health Organization announced Wednesday that 40 nations have ratified the first global attempt to control tobacco. It's called the Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (FCTC), and under United Nations rules, the convention - a form of treaty - will go into effect in 90 days.

For countries that have ratified it, such as Mexico, Ghana, and Sri Lanka, this could mean some changes. For example the FCTC:

• Requires that cigarette packs have health warnings that take up at least a third of the packaging.

• Bans the sponsorship of sports events and concerts and enacts advertising restrictions unless there are constitutional restraints.

• Sets a road map on taxation of tobacco and ways to educate the public about the dangers of smoking.

"It changes the way Big Tobacco does business," says Kathryn Mulvey of Corporate Accountability International, which helped to organize NGOs around the world to support the treaty. "It will undoubtedly save millions of lives."

During the 2-1/2-year negotiations over the treaty, tobacco companies worked hard for provisions they could live with. Now, at least publicly, companies such as Philip Morris support the treaty. "The FCTC is an opportunity - for consumers, the public health community, and the tobacco industry," says the company on its website.

But the treaty will not go into effect in the US, since the Bush administration has yet to submit it to the US Senate for approval. "I suspect at some point they will send it over with some others and give some priority to them," says Andy Fisher, a spokesman for Sen. Richard Lugar (R) of Indiana, who is chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, which reviews treaties.

Trent Duffy, a spokesman for the White House, says the Bush administration is considering the best time to submit it to Congress. "The administration signed on to the treaty, and the president believes we do need to take measures to stop young people from smoking," says Mr. Duffy.

Even though the US has some restrictions, the FCTC would go further. Health warnings on US cigarette packs are on the side and take up about 20 percent of the packaging. The treaty mandates a percentage between 30 to 50 percent, and the warning must be on the front or back.

Unless the US ratifies the treaty, it can be only an observer at future implementation meetings and protocols. "Sadly, the US failure to ratify leaves us on the sidelines while the rest of the world works to address important issues such as international tobacco smuggling ... and other areas that directly affect us," says Matthew Myers of the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids in Washington.

But some health officials in developing nations - a major target of the tobacco companies - are enthusiastic over enactment of the treaty. "It's perhaps most significant for Africa, where the industry has turned to as a potentially lucrative market," says Patricia Lambert, special adviser to the minister of health of South Africa. She expects her country to ratify the treaty in February.

of stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.

Unlimited digital access $11/month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.