The UN conference on stricter tobacco policy has fizzled out. ‘Milestone’: a minuscule fund to help poor countries getting rid of tobacco.
International negotiations on tobacco policy and smuggling in the past two weeks have had little effect. Decisions on stricter guidelines for tobacco products have been movedto the next meeting, that will take place two years from now. The corona crisis forced the participating countries to negotiate online. The wide variety in time zones made this difficult, according to the World Health Organization WHO, the UN body that organised the conference.
“That is, of course, extremely disappointing,” says outgoing State Secretary Paul Blokhuis (Public Health, Christian Union) to The Investigative Desk, which followed the negotiations for NRC. The Netherlands would have hosted the conference last year, but it was cancelled due to corona. Blokhuis wanted the Netherlands to play a role as a catalyst for stricter agreements. Now Geneva, the seat of the WHO, offered a virtual stage.
No less than 181 countries took part in the meeting, the ninth since the initiation of the Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (FCTC), the WHO’s anti-tobacco treaty, in 2005. “A lot has been achieved in that time,” says Belgian prevention expert Luk Joossens, a participant in the talks. He refers, among other things, to agreements on advertising, smoke-free areas and higher excise taxes.
But this edition there was no talk about stricter rules for “new tobacco products,” which was the focus of the latest conference, two years prior. Any decision requires consensus – which is lacking on e-cigarettes, says Joossens. Some countries ban them, others see them as a method for smoking cessation. “This makes it impossible to reach agreements.” In the WHO context, the topic will be discussed again in 2023 at the earliest.
The tobacco multinationals would prefer not to see stricter rules for electronic cigarettes being implemented for as long as possible. Blokhuis: “This postponement gives the industry more time to expand the market for new products, while regulation lags behind.” However, a decision was made about the formation of a fund that could offer financial support to poorer countries – growth markets for cigarettes – in their fight against tobacco. Still, rich countries, including the Netherlands, failed to make any concrete, serious commitments. In 2022, the WHO wants to have collected 50 million euros in an investment fund, from which developing countries can use the expected return on investment – 2 million euros – to combat smoking and tobacco smuggling. This pales in comparison to the estimated 24 billion euros that are needed to fully execute existing agreements from previous conferences.
Nevertheless, Blokhuis sees the fund as “an important milestone.” Joossens is also pleased. However, he is concerned that poor countries are dependent on rich countries for their own tobacco policy. “Precisely because most tobacco deaths occur in developing countries.” According to the WHO, smoking kills about 8 million people a year in these regions. This makes it the most important preventable cause of death in the world.
The World Health Organization’s tobacco treaty explicitly excludes the industry from negotiations. That does not withhold the multinational companies from lobbying through other participants. For example, countries like Guatemala and Nicaragua, which have close ties to the tobacco industry, delayed the Geneva talks, said Anca Toma, director of the international anti-tobacco umbrella SmokeFree Partnership. “That alone made us lose a day of the conference. The virtual set-up made it difficult to do anything about that.”
The Philippines called for all – “and we mean all” – stakeholders to be included in the negotiations. By that, the country was referring to the banned manufacturers and affiliated lobby groups that present themselves as consumer organisations. Those “consumer organisations” applauded this statement.
At the start of the conference, NRC published an investigation by The Investigative Desk in cooperation with Le Monde, which showed that the industry finances some of these groups in order to exert influence. The self-proclaimed “civil movement” World Vapers’ Alliance (WVA) is in fact a libertarian lobby group funded by the tobacco industry.
Before the negotiations began, WHO had explicitly warned against “industry front groups” and advised governments to refrain from any contact. In front of the closed doors of the WHO in Geneva, the WVA held a demonstration. They also sent an unknown number of country delegates a gift pack, complete with balloon and bow, containing a fortune cookie with a positive message about e-cigarettes. The Netherlands did not receive that kind of recommendation. Blokhuis: “In my policy, such products are not part of the solution, but part of the problem.”
According to the industry and lobby groups, e-cigarettes can reduce the damage caused by smoking. The World Health Organization doubts this: e-cigarettes release fewer harmful substances, but are still carcinogenic and addictive. The tobacco industry suffered another setback. Manufacturers of tobacco that is heated instead of burned – such as Philip Morris with its IQOS – claim that these new products are “smoke-free”. The WHO is now putting a stop to this, based on scientific evidence. The substances released by these products “clearly fall within the scientific definition of tobacco smoke”, reported the organisation.
After Geneva, all eyes are on Brussels. The European Commission is working on stricter measures for (electronic) cigarettes, which can serve as an example for the rest of the world. This week, the World Vapers’ Alliance travelled from Switzerland to the European Parliament in Brussels to bring gifts to sympathising members of the European Parliament.
22 November 2021
The full version of this article was published in the Dutch newspaper NRC (in Dutch).