The leadership of a World Health Organisation (WHO) treaty on tobacco control has proposed barring delegates with ties to state-owned tobacco firms from its upcoming conference, tightening its application of rules to shut out the industry from policy making, reports Reuters Health.
That would include delegates employed by state-owned tobacco companies or those otherwise “working to advance the interests of the tobacco industry,” according to an internal communication document.
The report says the proposal, if adopted at the conference of the Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (FCTC) in India, could restrict delegations sent by countries like China and Vietnam, where governments own cigarette companies and have in the past sent representatives linked to the industry. Any such members of the 180 delegations at the conference “would be requested to leave the premises”, according to the “note verbale”, an official diplomatic communication, from the WHO FCTC secretariat on behalf of the treaty’s leadership group to its parties.
The FCTC, the world’s first international public health treaty, states explicitly that health policies need to be made independent of tobacco industry influence. Its governing conferences have in the past ejected members of the public and the press after they were believed to have tobacco industry connections. Yet up until now, the treaty’s leaders had not moved to bar employees of state-owned tobacco companies.
FCTC secretariat official Guangyuan Liu has confirmed the “note verbale” was sent to parties recently.
The report says the proposed restriction highlights a growing battle between the industry and backers of the treaty, which went into effect in 2005 to guide national laws and policies in an effort to curb tobacco use, which kills an estimated 6m people a year worldwide. The global tobacco industry is estimated to be worth nearly $800bn this year.
The International Tobacco Growers Association, a non-profit group partly funded by big international cigarette companies, said the proposal was “beyond the wildest imagination”. António Abrunhosa, CEO of the group and a Portuguese tobacco grower, said that such a step was “unthinkable for a United Nations agency”.
But, the report says, John Stewart, deputy campaigns director at Corporate Accountability International, a Boston-based advocacy group that has supported tobacco-control efforts, praised the proposed restrictions. “The tobacco industry has really forced parties and the secretariat into a corner,” he said. “This is a bold good-government action to ensure that the treaty space, the place where public health policies will save millions of lives, is free of tobacco industry intimidation.”
Issues for debate at the conference include alternative livelihoods for tobacco farmers, e-cigarette regulation and trade and investment issues.
The secretariat earlier wrote to the treaty’s party nations asking them to exclude people with tobacco interests from their delegations. In the latest note, the secretariat said it then turned to a FCTC leadership group for guidance after receiving a number of nominations from countries that ignored the suggestion.
A WHO report says, meanwhile, that countries should consider curbing the use of e-cigarettes because there is not enough evidence to show they help people stop smoking. The Guardian reports that vaping will be on the agenda of a major meeting this week of the 180 countries that have signed the Framework Convention on Tobacco Control, aimed at combatting Big Tobacco and preventing the millions of deaths every year around the world caused by smoking.
But the public health community is split over whether e-cigarettes are friend or foe and some are outraged by the WHO’s advice to the meeting. It suggests countries that have not already banned e-cigarettes and other forms of nicotine delivery might want to consider imposing severe restrictions, including banning the flavouring of e-cigarettes as well as sales, advertising and possession by young people.
Countries might also want to ban nicotine delivery devices from all public places where smoking is not allowed, require health warnings about the chemicals in them, include information on the addictive potential of nicotine and ban any claims that they can help people give up tobacco smoking, the report says.
The WHO report was written at the request of the parties who wanted to know about the scientific evidence for or against nicotine-delivery devices, said Dr Vera Luiza da Costa e Silva, head of the convention secretariat. “So far there is a clear understanding that e-cigarettes should be regulated,” she said. “They should not be promoted among young people and pregnant women and other specific groups. They should not be promoted widely – there should be restrictions and regulations.” More monitoring of the effects and possible health benefits is needed, she said.
“While I don’t think COP will close the door (to e-cigarettes), I don’t think COP will open the door to them at this time,” she said.
The report says the issue splits the public health community. Critics of e-cigarettes are concerned that they may be a “stalking horse” for Big Tobacco, which the Framework Convention has made a pariah. Countries that have signed the treaty agree under Article 5.3 that the tobacco industry is beyond the pale and must never be allowed into negotiations. If e-cigarettes can help people stop smoking, the tobacco companies can argue for their rehabilitation and a presence at the table.
“While e-cigarettes offer a significant opportunity to public health, there are also risks. One is the way the tobacco industry uses harm reduction to secure reputational and access possibilities and to split the public health camp,” said Anna Gilmore, professor of public health at the University of Bath and the UK Centre for Tobacco Control Studies. “The tobacco industry uses e-cigarettes to claim it is committed to harm reduction, but meanwhile it continues to engage in harm maximisation by spending millions to promote tobacco and oppose any policy that would reduce its use.”