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Report Unveils Tobacco Industry’s Bid to Undermine WHO

By Ugochukwu Chimeziri
A new investigative report by the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists exposes a wide range of tactics employed by the tobacco industry to undermine advances being made by the global tobacco treaty – Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (FCTC). Threats to health policy include aggressive lobbying and legal intimidation, to charitable donations and even outright payoffs.

Even as Parties- including delegates from Nigeria’s ministry of health and other countries are discussing how to overcome such obstacles, the primary threat in advancing a treaty the World Health Organization projects could save 200 million lives by 2050 – industry tactics have followed countries to the treaty negotiations in Uruguay in order to capture through lobbying the policy makers of various participating nations.

Not only are dozens of tobacco industry representatives from Philip Morris and British America Tobacco (BAT) crowding the halls of the negotiation each day, they are also playing a role in the seating of delegates in attendance. These delegates are the eyes, ears, and voice piece of an industry that has otherwise been prohibited from directly participating in the negotiations and health policy under a core provision of the treaty.

One example is Zimbabwe, a non-Party observer. Despite being cash strapped the country somehow mustered the funds to send 10 delegates to Uruguay days after a prominent tobacco industry front group disparaged guidelines being negotiated currently to the Wall Street Journal. To put this in perspective, more than 35 ratifying countries were unable to send even a single representative. Worse, though the treaty requires that health policies and negotiations being protective from “commercial and other vested interests of the tobacco industry,” Zimbabwe’s delegation includes representatives from the Tobacco Industry Marketing Board, as well as ministries whose priority is either trade or agriculture.

“A reminder is needed that we are here to devise solutions to save people’s lives,” said Sam Ochieng of the Network for Accountability of Tobacco Trans-nationals and Consumer Information Network Kenya. “Progress is not possible if the long arm of industry is able to reach into and manipulate a conversation that rightly excludes Big Tobacco.”

“The suit instituted by Philip Morris against the Uruguay government for introducing warning labels on cigarettes sold in the country and the presence of tobacco industry representatives in the halls during negotiations must be viewed with seriousness as the avowed objective of the industry is to lobby delegates to whittle down provisions that prohibit them from interfering in the process. Delegates must remain steadfast and vigilant,” Philip Jakpor of Environmental Rights Action, Nigeria said.

Tobacco growing countries like Zimbabwe may be the most brazen, but are not unique when it comes to sending representatives from ministries whose objectives may be at odds with the treaty’s guiding principle that the public’s health be prioritized over trade.

Meanwhile, of the 438 Party delegates listed in the provisional list of participants, 74 delegates represent ministries other than health. Egregious examples include Macedonia’s delegation which has no health ministry representation. Of its 19 member delegation, China sent five delegates from its state-owned tobacco corporation.

While some non-health ministries may have legitimate reason for inclusion in a delegation, such as representation from finance ministries in anticipation of discussions regarding tobacco taxation; for others such appointments further expose the primary obstacle to treaty implementation – the fact that industry has a voice it shouldn’t within government in deciding health policy.

“This is not to say the vast majority of countries here are not acting with integrity, just that parties must be unified in challenging tobacco industry interference for the treaty to progress,” Yul Francisco Dorado, Corporate Accountability International’s Latin America Director said.

In this vein, Uruguay has proposed a resolution calling for parties to stand together in confronting the manner of legal intimidation it and other countries are now facing from Philip Morris International.

Corporate Accountability International and its partners which ERA is part of, are pushing for the inclusion of a provision giving the secretariat representing the parties to the treaty a voice during legal proceedings.

In the meantime, 172 parties participating at the conference united behind Uruguay in a declaration adopted at the meeting against the tobacco industry. The declaration reaffirms the right of Parties to the treaty, “to give priority to their right to public health” over trade, given the “devastating worldwide health, social, economic, and environmental consequences of tobacco consumption and exposure tobacco smoke.”

“Today, while one deadly corporation disputes the priority of public health over its profits, the global community has begged to differ – taking a unified stand against industry interference and intimidation,” Gigi Kellett of Corporate Accountability International said.

The declaration, proposed by Uruguay, can immediately assist the country in its case with PMI, not to mention the countless Parties facing similar legal intimidation, industry interference in health policy, and manipulation of the treaty process.

“Uruguay is not alone in its struggle and the legal challenge that spurred this declaration is not the only reason for its being proposed,” Yul Francisco said.

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