Tobacco treaty in danger: sell out by the US, EU & Japan feared

Monday 30 April 2001

ASH press release: 00:01 Monday 30 April 2001

ASH today warned governments and WHO that the tobacco convention to be negotiated in Geneva this week is in danger of serious and irreversible failure – and the opportunity to mount a global response to the tobacco epidemic squandered.  ASH said the bad outlook was due to a combination of:

  • A weak and ill-considered negotiating text [see <spanstyle=’text-decoration:none;’>What’s wrong with the Chair’s text? below].
  • The negative attitude of the European Union which just wants an agreement on its own narrow terms – no matter how feeble, or what opportunities are lost – [the EU will be sticking strictly to measures already agreed at the European level].
  • The new George W. Bush administration with its notorious connections to the tobacco industry and evident disdain for international treaties
  • The links between Japan and the tobacco industry – the Japanese government owns Japan Tobacco International, which is now implicated in major smuggling allegations through its acquisition of RJ Reynolds’ international business and facing racketeering litigation (RICO) brought by the European Union and nine member states.
  • Certain developing countries trying to exploit the treaty to claim compensation or otherwise trying to wreck the negotiations.

The Chair’s text starts off weak, but when this is diluted to the common ground between European Union, Japan and United States – let alone the other 190 countries – there is almost nothing left.

Clive Bates, Director of ASH is attending the meeting to lobby delegates for a strong treaty.  Bates said:

“We expect the US to oppose any serious advertising restrictions, we expect the EU to be weak on smuggling, and we expect Japan to try to block consumer protection measures like a ban on misleading ‘light’ branding.  By the time they’ve each watered down the text to their liking, there may not be much left”.     

Some of the EU member states like Britain and France talked a good talk, but when it came to it, they just surrendered to the deadening hand of Brussels. Britain started off promising leadership, but has weakened the EU position by opposing tough action on smuggling.”

“The way things are going, we are going to end up with hot air and empty resolutions of good intent. This is the week when we will find out if governments are simply making gestures or if they have the guts to take on the tobacco industry and really deal with the world’s biggest public health epidemic.”

“The danger is that too many governments and the WHO just want a treaty and any treaty will do. The success or failure this treaty will be judged on whether it bans tobacco advertising, protects consumers and tackles smuggling.

Note: ASH materials on the FCTC

What’s wrong with the Chair’s text? 

The starting point for the second meeting of the Intergovernmental Negotiating Body (INB) is a Chair’s text.  The text contains numerous weaknesses and misunderstandings about what makes effective tobacco control policy.  In some areas, the text could have been dictated by the tobacco industry.    A major challenge for the six days of the meeting will be to remove or improve, or otherwise address the deficiencies of the Chair’s text.

Useless, unenforceable and misguided provisions on tobacco advertising(section G.2) – it is impossible to define advertising targeted at under-18s, all advertising reaches under-18s even if it is targeted at older age groups, and it is, in any case, important to remove advertising for its impact on adult smokers – many of whom are struggling to break their addiction to nicotine. The Chair’s text has US and hence tobacco industry fingerprints all over it.

Trade before health(D.5 and I.2) – it is extraordinary that WHO and governments should draw up a public health convention that places the health measures in a subordinate position to trade liberalisation. These principles should be replaced with language that takes a precautionary approach to health gives health priority over trade.

Naïve and counter-productive age-18 label for the pack(G.1.d.iv.1) – the idea that putting an age limit on a pack will make any difference to who buys it and uses it is completely simplistic and a tobacco industry tactic aimed at making smoking seem more grown up.

Confusing and misleading tar yields to be printed on packs(G.1.d.iv.2) – the idea that the machine measured tar yield bears any relation to the tar that smokers take into the body is totally discredited (because smokers adjust the way they smoke to obtain a desired dose of nicotine, whereas machines do not).  Though there is plenty of evidence available, the WHO and the Chair have been supported in their misguided ideas by civil servants from the European Union.  The measure simply confuses and misleads consumers and should be replaced with meaningful communication of risk.

Oversight of a size specification for labels(G.1.d) – one of the greatest battles has been to force tobacco companies to give up space on the pack for consumer and health information, yet this has been completely overlooked.

Half-hearted anti-smuggling measures(I.1-7) – the scale of tobacco fraud is so vast and financial losses so great that much more substantial measures should be justified.  These should include measures to secure and supervise the distribution system, strict liability applied to tobacco companies for excise losses and a comprehensive tracking and tracing regime.  This should be backed by trade sanctions against non-signatories.  The text is a failure of ambition on the part of the Chair and WHO.

Ineffective anti-smuggling markings(I.3.a) – the proposal to have batch numbers and other production information on the pack betrays a shallow understanding of the illicit trade and naivety about how such measures could be circumvented and counterfeited.  For example, what happens when a tobacco company defines a ‘batch’ as three months’ production from a factory, which would be shipped to 20 wholesale customers in six countries?  It would comply with the convention but be thoroughly useless for tackling smuggling.

Excessive and ill-judged focus on age and youth access(I.8-12) – the Chair and WHO closely follow the ideas of Philip Morris and BAT in stressing measures that supposedly prevent under-18s having access to cigarettes.  Though most evidence suggests such measures are ineffective (or counterproductive because they make smoking seem more grown up), their main purpose is to please politicians.  Teenagers are most influenced by the adult world they aspire to enter – this is one of the most basic ideas in tobacco control, but has been overlooked in the text.

Licensing of retailers(I.13) – the text calls for licensing retailers, but there is little evidence that this would be more effective than say large fines or other deterrents for breaking the law on smuggling or under-age sales.  Once again the Chair and WHO have tried to insist that ‘one-size-fits-all’ and failed to respect the diversity of circumstances faced by the parties.

Protocols negotiations delayed unnecessarily(all) – the text says that the COP should negotiate protocols.  This means that negotiation cannot begin until after entry into force of the Convention, which may be some years away.  This is just needless delay – negotiation of protocols should begin in parallel with the Convention and be conducted by the INB.

Implied agricultural compensation(D.4) – the text suggests that tobacco farmers may be compensated for lost output or assisted with ‘transition’ – this will drag the negotiations into a stalemate of impossible compensation demands blocking public health measures.   As the ‘business-as-usual’ prevalence of tobacco use is expected to grow from 1.2 to 1.7 billion users by 2020 it is hardly likely that there will be a drop in world demand.  No part of the tobacco industry should be receiving any compensation for the consequences of a public health treaty.  Diversification should be managed through the normal modalities of development assistance – such as World bank sector adjustment, bi-lateral aid and national economic strategy.

No serious financial mechanism(Q.2) – the text suggests a voluntary mechanism supervised by WHO.  Which developed country would hand over money in such a manner?  Any country with voluntary money to spend would naturally want it spent bilaterally.  Countries act multilaterally where they all agree to do so together, and so that there are no free riders.

Numerous vague provisions (many) – far too much of the text uses “appropriate measures” (= whatever you want); “to the extent possible” (= down to and including nothing); “within means at their disposal” (= if they can be bothered).

What’s good about the Chair’s text?

There are a number of positive elements to the Chair’s text of course.

  • Potential for protocols to deliver more detailed measures (subject to political will)
  • Ban on duty free sales
  • Ban on light and mild branding
  • Ban on misleading claims
  • Warnings in national language
  • End market destination marking  as an anti-smuggling measure
  • Some capacity building and expertise exchange
  • Co-operation in research and education
  • General support for tobacco control and smoking cessation

Unfortunately, many of the good items in the Chair’s are those most likely to be opposed by US, European Union or Japan.


ASH – 20 April 2001