Tobacco treaty talks open amid fears and hopes

Monday, April 30th 2001, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

GENEVA (AP) _ A new round of negotiations on an international tobacco-control treaty opened Monday amid fears by health campaigners that it will be too weak to prevent cigarette-related deaths rising to 10 million a year by 2030.

``The tobacco convention is in danger of serious and irreversible failure,'' said Clive Bates, director of Action on Smoking and Health.

ASH and other anti-smoking groups, like U.S.-based Infact, said that a draft treaty to be discussed at the weeklong meeting was milder than expected. They voiced fears that it might be watered down still further, including by the new U.S. administration of President Bush, which critics perceive as having links with Big Tobacco.

But World Health Organization Director-General Gro Harlem Brundtland said the WHO-sponsored treaty, which is meant to enter into force by 2003, was proceeding according to plan.

``Beyond the concern and the rhetoric, beyond the anger and the anguish, it is our ability to secure a set of global rules to control tobacco that will bear testimony to our conviction,'' Brundtland told the opening session.

``With one life lost to tobacco every eight seconds, time is not on our side.''

The text under discussion was drawn up by Celso Amorim, a Brazilian diplomat who chaired last October's first round of talks.

It would commit governments to ban ``all forms of direct and indirect tobacco advertising, promotion and sponsorship targeted at persons under the age of 18,'' and to severely curb other advertising. To the dismay of anti-smoking campaigners, it stops short of an outright ban on advertising, which has long been a WHO priority.

The draft text also contains provisions to combat smuggling, phase out duty free sales, increase taxes and control labels like ``low tar'' or ``mild,'' which are criticized for giving smokers a false sense of comfort. But it indicates that trade agreements should be given equal priority with health concerns _ a clause which has upset the activists.

Amorim has said his proposals represent a ``compromise'' between the differing national viewpoints.

Bates said, ``We expect the U.S. 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.''

Former President Clinton took a tough line against Big Tobacco, although he opposed an advertising ban as violating the U.S. Constitution. Bush has so far kept a low profile while he formulates policy.

``We're watching our government very closely to look for any changes in position on the treaty,'' said Lucinda Wykle-Rosenberg of Infact, a Boston-based lobbying group.

Japan _ with a government stake in Japan Tobacco which bought out R.J. Reynolds international tobacco business _ is reportedly lukewarm to the treaty.

The European Union, rebuffed by a European Court decision last October to overturn its ban on tobacco promotion, has since opted for a less ambitious tobacco-control program.

Most anti-smoking campaigners have accused Big Tobacco of trying to influence the negotiations _ a charge denied by the companies, who protest that they have been unfairly shut out from the deliberations.

``WHO continues to exclude from consultation a wide range of tobacco stakeholders including consumers, and the farmers, traders, manufacturers and other industries representing 100 million tobacco-related jobs worldwide,'' British American Tobacco said in a statement.

WHO estimates that smoking kills more than 4 million people per year and predicts the toll may rise to 10 million per year by 2030 because of surging tobacco use in developing countries.