U.N. Invites Tobacco Firms to Smoking Debate
GENEVA (Reuters) - The World Health Organization stepped up the pace in its campaign to have tobacco products regulated Monday by inviting the world's cigarette makers to its first public debate on the risks of smoking.
Derek Yach, the U.N. agency's campaign chief, said the industry had expressed ``unprecedented'' interest in taking part in the two-day hearing in September in Geneva, to be attended also by health experts, tobacco farmers and officials.
``Sooner or later, we need to talk to the tobacco industry,'' Yach told a news conference. ``We want to elevate the debate to the public domain and stop underhand lobbying....
``A large number of skeletons belonging to tobacco companies are already in the public domain. To improve their images, tobacco firms want to share information with us. We believe the industry's interest in talking to us has risen considerably.''
Tobacco companies are trying to improve their battered image following ruinous multi-billion-dollar lawsuits in the United States which have hit their stock prices.
The WHO has recently opened a new front in its anti-smoking battle with a campaign to enact the world's first international treaty to curb tobacco use and its advertising.
The agency wants a legally-binding treaty to focus on a global ban on advertising and an increase in taxes on tobacco products. It hopes to have agreement by 2003.
Yach said consensus was proving elusive, but the fact that 150 countries were taking part Monday in a Geneva working group meeting, up from the 114 that attended the first such meeting last year, was a sign of growing interest.
WHO hopes the new treaty will address key areas of tobacco control such as advertising and sponsorship, package labeling and international harmonization of taxes.
It says deaths from tobacco-related illnesses are running at a staggering one every eight seconds, or four million a year. It estimates that smoking-related deaths will rise to 20 percent of all deaths in Europe by 2020 if nothing is done.
The agency says multinationals have now shifted focus to markets in Third World countries where there is widespread ignorance of the dangers of smoking. These countries account for 70 percent of tobacco-related deaths worldwide.
Yach said new data from Brazil, South Africa, Zimbabwe, Oman, Egypt, China and India indicated WHO might have severely underestimated the number of children taking up smoking.
He criticized tobacco companies for using additives in cigarettes to make them taste of chocolate and honey and thus appeal to young smokers.