Break US stronghold of 'big tobacco'

On Nov. 8, 2005, the United States missed a major international deadline. Early next year, governments will come together to determine how to implement and enforce the first ever global health treaty. Because of our government's inaction, the US will not have a vote.

The global tobacco treaty represents the first time the World Health Organization has used its mandate to make international law; the first international law to regulate an entire industry; the first international health agreement to recognize countries' right to prioritize health over trade and commercial interests; and the first accord to protect public health policies from tobacco industry interference.

It won't be the first time that the US signs an international agreement and then fails to follow through and ratify. Other treaties our government has signed and not ratified include the Convention on the Rights of the Child and the Convention on Biological Diversity.

The Bush administration signed the global tobacco treaty - formally known as the World Health Organization Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (WHO FCTC) - with great fanfare in May 2004. Despite the Bush administration's lack of action, the WHO FCTC has proven to be one of the most quickly embraced treaties in the history of the United Nations.

More than 70 percent of the world's population lives in countries that ratified the treaty before the deadline to participate with a vote in the Conference of the Parties next February.

In the wake of the recent UN summit where world leaders appeared incapable of agreeing on anything substantial, what has made this treaty so popular and successful?

The health, social, and economic costs of tobacco are simply too great.

The WHO attributes 100 million deaths to tobacco in the 20th century, and projects that if current trends continue tobacco will claim 1 billion lives this century, with 70 percent of this burden borne by people in developing countries. This treaty takes major steps to reverse the tobacco epidemic.

As the treaty is implemented over the next five years, the Marlboro Man should make his last appearance in countries that have ratified. One of the treaty's central provisions is a ban on tobacco advertising, promotion, and sponsorship.

In countries like Vietnam, Philip Morris/Altria can no longer promote its brands by hiring young women to dress in short skirts and offer sample cigarettes to men. British American Tobacco (BAT) cannot sponsor the 2010 Soccer World Cup in South Africa. No more tobacco billboards, no more tobacco race cars, and no more promotional vacations.

Developing countries also rallied to help curb tobacco corporations' aggressive efforts to undermine tobacco control policies. As a result, the treaty requires governments to protect public health policies from tobacco industry interference.

The urgent need for this type of international regulation has only become more apparent in the months leading up to the November deadline. In Guatemala, Philip Morris/Altria has been aggressively lobbying for legislation that would create obstacles for implementation of the global tobacco treaty. And in Nigeria, BAT has been offering cash prizes to journalists who deride the treaty and write tobacco-friendly articles. Philip Morris/Altria and BAT have been caught red-handed, working to derail the treaty ratification process on every continent.

The treaty has been proving popular among wealthy and developing countries alike. Parties to the global tobacco treaty include Canada, the European Union, India, Kenya, South Africa, Thailand, and China - the world's largest tobacco market.

For governments concerned with their people's health and the burden of medical expenses related to tobacco addiction, this treaty makes a lot of sense. According to the World Bank, even tobacco-growing countries will benefit from strong tobacco-control policies. So, why hasn't the US ratified?

After the US government sabotaged its own six-year tobacco industry lawsuit last spring, the answer became painfully clear: "Big tobacco" still has a stranglehold on top-level US officials. Big tobacco and its executives reported $3.7 million in political contributions during the 2004 election cycle and more than $45 million over the past decade. And as we know from the past six decades of tobacco industry deceit, reported political contributions are only the tip of the iceberg.

While the majority of the world moves forward with this historic victory for health and corporate accountability, the US remains on the sidelines, giving in to its deadly tobacco addiction.

Kathryn Mulvey is the executive director of Corporate Accountability International, a membership organization that wages campaigns challenging irresponsible and dangerous corporate actions around the world.

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