Thanks primarily to the United States’ rejection of several key points, no grand pronouncements emerged from the World Health Organization’s meeting on curbing worldwide tobacco use. The WHO, a subsection of the United Nations, hopes to implement a resolution to reduce tobacco use by the year 2003. According to agency figures, tobacco is linked to more than four million deaths worldwide each year.
The first round of talks for the zippily-named Framework Convention on Tobacco Control ended Wednesday with pledges to meet again in March and in October to hammer out the most contentious issues (about which the United States disagrees with just about everyone else). How and where and to whom should tobacco companies be permitted to advertise? Should cigarette manufacturers be permitted to label their wares "light" or "low-tar?" (Apparently unbowed by last week’s National Cancer Institute’s announcement that such labels are patently false and therefore misleading to consumers, the U.S. delegates argued against banning the terms on cigarette packages.)
The U.S. stands virtually alone in its opposition to broad-reaching prohibitions on advertising and to bans on the use of specific marketing terms, sparking criticism that ultra-wealthy tobacco companies have too much influence over the Bush administration’s positions on smoking-related issues. American delegates deny such charges, insisting their opposition to both bans stems from their interest in protecting freedom of speech.
It is predictable, perhaps, that delegates from developing countries in Africa and Asia, facing the specter of debilitating health care costs and labor forces lost to tobacco-related diseases and deaths, are pushing for tighter controls and harsh penalties for companies that stray from guidelines. Also standing against the U.S. position, however, are the 15 member nations of the European Union, who’ve issued a statement announcing support for "global restrictions on all forms of advertising and promotion of tobacco products."
Happily, there was one point on which most everyone agreed; European and U.S. delegates banded together to approve guidelines to curb cigarette smuggling. (Cynics, of course, might point out that U.S. business interests are not served by smuggling, which provides cigarettes to be sold at cut-rate prices).
Despite these disagreements, Dr. Derek Yach, executive director for non-communicable diseases and mental health for the WHO, is optimistic about the week’s work and the future of the Convention. "I think we made pretty steady progress this week," he told TIME.com. "We heard many governments shift to views that favor public health more strongly. And by March (when the conference is expected to resume) I hope we’ll be able to make some tough decisions." Yach says he is not worried by the U.S. delegation’s positions, and even offers the Americans a compliment. "The U.S. came here in the spirit of serious negotiation, and on many of the issues they were actually well ahead of other countries."
This conference is part of the organization’s global push to cut back on tobacco use. At the beginning of this week’s meeting, WHO director Gro Harlem Brundtland introduced a campaign to eliminate cigarette and tobacco advertising from sports events, arenas and teams. The plan would end sponsorship deals between tobacco companies and athletes, a link Brundtland calls "the most pernicious and pervasive form of tobacco marketing."