U.N. Working On World's First Anti-Smoking Treaty
The world's beleaguered cigarette makers faced the prospect of fighting on a new front Monday as U.N. talks began to hammer out the first international treaty to curb tobacco use and its advertising.
The talks are aimed at agreeing on a legally binding and potentially industry-hobbling treaty against tobacco, focusing on a global ban on cigarette advertising, an increase in taxes on tobacco products and the right to a smoke-free environment.
``This moment is our tryst with history,'' World Health Organization (WHO) chief Gro Harlem Brundtland, who hopes to have the treaty in place by 2003, told the start of the talks.
If endorsed by governments, the treaty would directly threaten the growth markets of tobacco giants in the developing world, U.N. health agency officials told a news conference.
``We want to get in the face of the industry,'' Franklin Apfel, a medical doctor at the WHO's anti-tobacco initiative, said at the start of the first round of talks expected to last a week. A ministerial-level meeting is planned for early 2000.
``The framework convention gives us a ticket to ride into all these countries and help make linkages between countries on a global basis to bring the world's best forces in terms of combating the tobacco epidemic,'' he said.
While the tobacco industry has faced growing regulatory pressure and multi-billion-dollar lawsuits in the West, this has not been the case in growth markets such as China and Africa where there is widespread ignorance of the dangers of smoking.
The WHO says that in 2030, the developing world will account for 70 percent of the projected 10 million deaths a year from tobacco-related diseases.
As the negotiations began, a coalition of public health and consumer rights groups unveiled a ``Death Clock'' in Geneva that tracks, minute by minute, the number of people the WHO says are dying from smoking-related diseases.
Tobacco A Priority For Who
Brundtland said tobacco-related diseases were claiming one new victim every eight seconds, or four million people a year.
``There is growing evidence to suggest the tobacco industry has subverted science, public health and political processes to sell a product that addicts its consumers before killing them,'' said Brundtland, a former Norwegian prime minister who held the post three times.
The WHO has made the fight against tobacco a policy priority. This month, it launched an inquiry into the tobacco industry, alleging that it mounted a systematic global effort to undermine its policies against smoking.
It said it uncovered evidence that the industry secretly funded experts to appear before its committees and financed ''front organizations'' campaigning for free choice in an attempt to influence policy.
That evidence had emerged from tobacco industry internal documentation disclosed in a recent case brought by the state of Minnesota against tobacco companies.