U.S. signs on to global tobacco control treaty

So far, 113 nations have signed the agreement, but ratification by 40 is needed to enact the document.

By Susan J. Landers — Posted June 14, 2004

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Washington -- Dept. of Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy Thompson May 10 signed a landmark international treaty for tobacco control. Anti-smoking advocates hope this step will lead to meaningful actions to curb tobacco use throughout the world.

"The United States has long been a world leader in anti-smoking efforts," he said. "We have committed more resources than any other country to the research, development and evaluation of smoking control and cessation programs, both at home and abroad."

The World Health Organization's Framework Convention on Tobacco Control was approved unanimously last year by the members of the World Health Assembly, including the United States, after three years of negotiations. It is the first global agreement to try to reduce the rising toll of tobacco-related illnesses in the world.

The AMA applauded Thompson's signing of the FCTC. "Tobacco now kills some five million people each year," said AMA Trustee Ron M. Davis, MD. "Without this new international treaty, that number could climb to 10 million deaths a year, with 70% of these new tobacco deaths occurring in the developing world."

The treaty must now be ratified by the Senate to gain full U.S. backing.

"Signing the treaty is good public relations; ratifying it will be good public health," said John Kirkwood, president and CEO of the American Lung Assn. "Merely signing it without Senate ratification is a hollow victory."

So far, 113 nations have endorsed the document, which has a June 29 deadline for signatures, and 14 nations have ratified it. It must be ratified by 40 countries before it can take effect, but this hurdle has no deadline.

Once in place, the document would require countries to impose restrictions on tobacco advertising, sponsorship and promotion; call for new packaging and labeling of tobacco products; establish clean indoor air controls; and strengthen legislation to stop tobacco smuggling.

Weighing the impact

While the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids supports the treaty and believes it to be strong, the actual effects on the tobacco industry in the United States are likely to be slight if the treaty is, in fact, ratified by the Senate, said Judy Wilkenfeld, director of the group's international programs.

Although the treaty calls for a ban on advertising, it exempts nations that have constitutions preventing such bans, and that includes the United States, she said. But the treaty would require stronger warnings on the fronts and backs of cigarette packages, and those warnings would have to cover at least 30% of the packaging.

Currently, cigarettes sold in this country have warnings only on the sides of the packages. Canada, in contrast, requires warnings on the backs and fronts of packs, and those warnings must cover 50% of the space. Brazil has a warning label that covers 100% of one side.

The treaty also requires nations to work together to help stop tobacco smuggling, a provision that the United States drafted and would be expected to comply with. Other provisions are recommendations rather than requirements, Wilkenfeld said, and they ask only that nations make their best efforts to put them forward. Among them are the promotion of smoking prevention and cessation.

The treaty is likely to have its strongest effect in the developing world. "For far too long, the tobacco industry has targeted the developing world for new markets to sell their lethal products," said the Lung Assn.'s Kirkwood. "The treaty provides new tools to protect the public, especially the world's children, from tobacco addiction, disease and death."

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External links

The World Health Organization's Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (link)

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