WHO and Big Tobacco face off at anti-smoking summit
GENEVA, Oct 11 (Reuters) - The world's top cigarette makers and their arch rival, the World Health Organisation, face off in unprecedented public hearings in Geneva on Thursday and Friday to debate a potentially industry-hobbling anti-tobacco pact.
The hearings pit Philip Morris Co, British American Tobacco, Japan Tobacco Inc and cigar maker Davidoff as well as tobacco farmers and smoking groups against prestigious medical associations and health campaigners.
The world's beleaguered cigarette-makers, facing hostile laws and multi-billion-dollar lawsuits at home, have found themselves up against a new adversary in WHO's chief Gro Harlem Brundtland, who has made the smoking fight a policy priority.
In Geneva, tobacco firms will have five minutes each to make presentations on the treaty which is seeking a global ban on tobacco ads, higher taxes and tighter controls on underage smoking including a ban on vending machines.
The hearings will be followed by talks next week on the world's first anti-tobacco pact WHO hopes to conclude by 2003.
Diplomats say the treaty is a hard sell because it involves national economies and world trade rules.
In many developing countries, where cigarette packs do not even carry health warnings, tobacco firms are big investors and bring in tax revenue for hard-pressed governments. Thousands of people work in cigarette plants and millions more grow tobacco.
The treaty ``is fundamentally flawed and will not achieve its objectives,'' British American Tobacco said in its written submission to the hearings.
WHO's efforts suffered a setback last week after Europe's highest court threw out legislation that would have banned almost all tobacco advertising and sponsorship by 2006.
While countries such as Canada and Norway back a strong treaty, others such as Japan and the United States are seeking vague wording to give governments flexibility, diplomats said.
The two sides in the tobacco war have long been shadow boxing through various moves. But the battle came out into the open after WHO recently accused cigarette makers of trying to secretly undermine its anti-smoking efforts.
WHO says the hearings will give a chance to the industry to put its case and promote dialogue. But things are likely to get hostile as the agency ratchets up its pressure on the industry.
Derek Yach, WHO's anti-tobacco head, said the agency and cigarette makers ``do not share common ground in many areas.''
Martin Broughton, chairman of British American Tobacco, conceded in an editorial published in the Wall Street Journal on Wednesday that ``the climate at the hearing will be unfriendly to organisations such as ours.''
But he added: ``We will be there.''
``We will go to Geneva and we will say to the governments who belong to the WHO...that if they're serious about tackling the health impacts of tobacco use, it makes sense to count us in.''
Broughton said BAT wanted to help states to prevent youth smoking but Yach dismissed this as a public relations exercise.
Allowing tobacco companies work with governments to prevent underage smoking is like ``letting a fox into the chicken coop,'' Yach told Reuters.
Yach said WHO was interested in hearing what tobacco company scientists have to say on their own research and what progress has been made towards less harmful cigarettes.
``We want to see whether the fox has changed,'' Yach said.
He also challenged cigarette makers to reveal their marketing budgets for the developing world, where they have been expanding to make up for reduced consumption in the West.
A recent WHO survey found a staggering one in five 13- to 15-year-olds in 12 developing countries from Ukraine to China smoked, and smoked international brands like Camel and Marlboro.
WHO says one person is dying every 10 seconds due to smoking-related diseases and estimates such deaths will rise to 20 percent of all deaths in Europe by 2020 if nothing is done.