Negotiator In Global Tobacco Talks Quits
The top U.S. official working on an international treaty to reduce cigarette smoking worldwide has resigned at a time when the United States is embroiled in contentious negotiations with more than 150 countries on how to counter the rising global use of t
Bush administration officials said yesterday that the negotiator, Thomas E. Novotny, has stepped down for personal reasons unrelated to the negotiations. But three people who have spoken with Novotny in recent weeks said he had privately expressed frustration over the administration's decision to soften the U.S. positions on key issues, including restrictions on secondhand smoke and the advertising and marketing of cigarettes.
Novotny, a deputy assistant secretary at the Department of Health and Human Services, led the U.S. delegation to the World Health Organization's Framework Convention on Tobacco Control during the Clinton and Bush administrations. The talks are aimed at developing guidelines by 2003 that would lead to significant reductions in tobacco use worldwide.
HHS spokesman William Hall confirmed yesterday that Novotny will leave the government in February and that a new leader will be selected for the American delegation. But officials said that Novotny's departure "had nothing to do with the international tobacco treaty negotiations" and that he "simply decided he wanted to retire." Novotny, 54, did not return calls yesterday.
After the second negotiating session, held in the spring in Geneva, tobacco control activists criticized what they called significant retreats in American positions under President Bush. WHO officials also said the United States had taken positions opposed by many, and sometimes most, other nations.
Three people active in international tobacco control discussions said they have spoken with Novotny since the Geneva meeting, and that he felt uncomfortable, and sometimes distressed, by the positions he had to defend. The three said, however, that they did not know if those concerns led to his retirement.
The latest controversy comes as the Bush administration has been defending itself against charges that it has alienated allies by changing the U.S. positions in a number of international negotiations, including the Kyoto Protocol on global warming, the Germ Warfare Accord and the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty.
Judith Wilkenfeld of the Campaign for Tobacco Free Kids said she watched Novotny during the last United Nations tobacco negotiating session and could see that "he was very uncomfortable with positions he was required to take."
She said she has known Novotny for 10 years and that "it comes as no surprise to me that he would retire rather than continue to argue the case of the new administration on tobacco issues."
Another public health colleague who saw Novotny after the May negotiations said "he was completely flattened and depressed. He was very unhappy with the situation in his delegation."
Novotny has been a federal employee for 23 years, working as an officer in the U.S. Public Health Service on major international and domestic issues.
Administration policies on global tobacco control have come under attack from antismoking activists, including Rep. Henry A. Waxman (D-Calif.), whose staff has analyzed WHO and HHS documents outlining the American stands at the conference. Waxman accused the Bush administration of orchestrating "a breath-taking reversal in U.S. policy -- going from global leader on tobacco control to pulling back and advocating the tobacco industry's positions."
Waxman wrote a letter to Bush criticizing the changes, and other letters to agency and department heads involved in the negotiations asking for information on how they reached their positions for the talks. As the ranking minority member of the House Committee on Government Reform, Waxman is also asking for information about any meetings between federal officials and the tobacco industry while the American positions were being put together.
In his letter, Waxman said his conclusions came from WHO minutes of the negotiating sessions and from an HHS document detailing all amendments proposed by the United States. The changes included proposals to make voluntary tobacco control steps that were previously accepted as mandatory, and U.S. opposition to a proposal requiring health warnings to be in the language of the country where the cigarettes are sold. In addition, the United States tried to soften language that would have restricted tobacco advertising that appeal to children.
The HHS document also shows that the U.S. delegation opposed restrictions on smoking on public transportation and in "enclosed public places" -- policies embraced in many U.S. states. In statements made before the second negotiating session began, Novotny said reducing secondhand smoke was a priority for the American delegation.
"I have received evidence that the United States is seeking to undermine world efforts to negotiate an international agreement to reduce tobacco use," Waxman said in his letter to Bush.
Yesterday, a spokesman would say only that HHS Secretary Tommy G. Thompson "has said all along that he is committed to reducing global tobacco use and to working towards an international treaty that is practical and workable for everyone."