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Ralph Nader > In the Public Interest > Third World Smoking Fatalities

For decades, the multinational tobacco companies have known that their future rests in the Third World.

All of the growth in global tobacco consumption in coming years is expected in the developing countries, with the world’s 1.1 billion smokers expected to rise to 1.64 billion by 2025. The World Health Organization estimates four million people die annually from smoking-related disease; by 2030, that number is expected to climb to 10 million, with 70 percent of the fatalities occurring in the Third World.

As one of the most politically vulnerable and therefore most politically engaged industries, Big Tobacco has long kept an eye out for potential threats to its plans that spread death and disease.

Philip Morris, BAT and the other tobacco giants have viewed the World Health Organization (WHO) as a particularly grave threat to their interests.

The industry’s response, a new WHO report shows, has been to attack WHO’s credibility, turn other UN agencies against the health organization, seek to undermine its funding base, undertake surveillance of WHO’s operations and even seek to infiltrate WHO.

Based on a review of internal industry documents made public as a result of U.S. litigation against the tobacco companies, the report documents industry efforts — in the companies’ words — to “attack WHO,” “undertake a long-term initiative to counteract WHO’s aggressive global anti-smoking campaign and to introduce a public debate with respect to a redefinition of WHO’s mandate,” “allocate the resources to stop [WHO] in their tracks” and “work with journalists to question WHO priorities,budget, role in social engineering, etc.”

Industry tactics throughout the 1980s and 1990s, according to the WHO report, included:

  • Influencing the UN Food and Agriculture Organization to oppose WHO’s tobacco control policies.
  • Secretly funding “independent” experts to publish papers and comment on WHO research in an effort to manipulate the scientific debate on the health effects of tobacco.
  • Using a U.S. lawyer with strong ties to the tobacco industry to divert WHO away from focusing on tobacco control. Appointed to the development committee of the Pan American Health Organization (PAHO, a health organization for the Americas that serves as a regional office for WHO), the lawyer tried to redirect PAHO away from focusing on tobacco issues. The lawyer, Paul Dietrich, denies his efforts at PAHO were funded by tobacco companies.

These dirty trick stratagems, along with weak leadership at WHO, for years succeeded at diverting the World Health Organization from devoting proper attention to the smoking epidemic.

Now, finally, things have changed. Under the aggressive leadership of Director General Gro Harlem Brundtland, WHO is pushing a bold Tobacco-Free Initiative with a proposed international treaty on tobacco control as its centerpiece.

The WHO’s proposed Framework Convention on Tobacco Control would properly frame tobacco control as a global problem requiring a global response — focusing especially on containing the predatory activities of the multinational tobacco companies. Through their introduction of slick advertising and marketing, promotion of smoother blends and association of smoking with perceived American values of freedom, the multinational companies’ lethal contribution is to increase smoking rates among women and young people.

The Framework Convention would obligate signatory countries to pursue a wide-range of tobacco control objectives, including preventing tobacco addiction, promoting smoke-free environments, stopping exposure of youth to tobacco promotions and other general measures to reduce the toll of tobacco-related disease and death. Protocols to the Convention would require countries to undertake specific commitments, such as banning all or certain categories of tobacco advertising, or taking identifiable steps to end cigarette smuggling.

Such a treaty and the accompanying protocols will surely not put an end to the unconscionable activities of the tobacco merchants, but the treaty and protocols do have the potential to curtail Big Tobacco’s activities and to steadily advance a health agenda in meaningful ways.

WHO hopes to have completed treaty negotiations as soon as next year. Rapid completion of the negotiations, however, will have to overcome objections from the industry — albeit an industry with declining credibility, as the WHO report and other searches of the companies’ internal documents highlight case after case of deceitful and deceptive industry schemes.

Whether WHO can succeed in its efforts to achieve a strong and effective treaty and protocols which include specific commitments will also depend in significant part on the stance of the United States. So far, U.S. delegates have shown a disturbing proclivity to favor watering down the treaty and to exclude public health advocates from the treaty negotiation process (itself a sure means to weaken the final result).

There is no excuse for an even partially obstructive negotiating posture by the United States or any other country. The deadly consequences of the spread of smoking are now beyond debate; the ability to reduce smoking rates through comprehensive tobacco control policies has been demonstrated by the examples of Singapore, South Africa, California, Massachusetts and other jurisdictions; and the vital need to constrain the activities of the multinational tobacco companies is indisputable.