War against smoking goes worldwide
In Nigeria, tobacco companies aren't allowed to advertise, yet smoking among young people is growing, in part because of sponsorship of radio shows and sports teams.
In Vietnam, until recently, "cigarette girls" in miniskirts gave free samples to young men.
Such promotion has helped tobacco use soar worldwide. Today, there are 1.1 billion smokers - 80 percent in the developing world.
Now, for the first time, health leaders are meeting in Geneva at the World Health Organization (WHO) to discuss ways to slow the international smoking onslaught.
Starting today, representatives from as many as 191 nations will gather to consider an international antismoking treaty that could restrict tobacco marketing to young people, tackle smuggling, and encourage countries to help people quit smoking. "It is the single most significant action ever proposed to reduce tobacco use worldwide," says Matt Myers, president of the Campaign for Tobacco Free Kids, based in Washington.
Hardly anyone expects the negotiations on what is known as the Framework Convention on Tobacco Control to be easy. For example, China - which consumes 1.7 trillion cigarettes annually, more than any other country - counts on tobacco revenue to fund its budget. Other countries, such as Malawi, are major growers of the crop. Also, the United States does not want any restrictions on the large volume of cigarettes it exports.
"It will be very tough negotiating. There will be well over 100 countries involved, and the tobacco industry has longstanding ties with many of the people in government," says Richard Daynard of the Northeastern University School of Law in Boston.
Last week, in presentations before the WHO, the industry itself said it was ready for some form of regulation. For example, Philip Morris International, the largest US cigarettemaker, says "sensible regulation" benefits consumers, society, and the company by providing stability and predictability.
"In the past, there were times when we resisted regulation and viewed it as inappropriate, but that was probably a mistake on our part," said David Davies, vice president for corporate affairs at Philip Morris International, in an interview.
The companies also see the potential that regulation will allow them to market what they hope to call safer cigarettes. "Our research suggests today that there is the possibility of products with the potential for reduced harm. To effectively evaluate and market them, we need to work with governments to establish standards accepted by the public health community," says Mr. Davies.
Public-health groups, however, are highly skeptical about the industry's offer to help. "They claim to be in favor of a reasonable treaty, but then raise objections to all of the provisions public-health experts think will make a difference," says Mr. Myers. Those measures would include higher excise taxes, strong marketing restrictions, and regulation by agencies such as the Food and Drug Administration.
Even before the negotiations begin, Myers says there is a broad consensus on the need to reduce cigarette smuggling. About one-third of all cigarettes exported from the US disappear before reaching their final destination.
Public-health officials also expect the WHO to take up the issue of marketing, especially to the world's youth. Although the industry says it no longer does this, a recent film by INFACT, a Boston-based public-interest group, found otherwise. A film crew in Vietnam documented young women in short skirts distributing free samples to young men. Vietnamese authorities subsequently cracked down on the practice.
In Nigeria, tobacco companies sponsor sports teams and radio shows popular with young people, said Akinbode Oluwafemi of Environmental Rights Action. He estimates that about 10 percent of Nigerians currently smoke. "But it is growing quickly, especially among young people."
The Geneva negotiations to end such practices are expected to take at least a year and a half. Then, the treaty will have to be ratified around the globe by individual countries. The potential impact will be the greatest in developing nations, where 70 percent of all tobacco-related deaths are expected to take place over the next 20 years. "We are very hopeful something is done that is meaningful," says Myers.