BANGKOK - When the World Health Assembly (WHA) gets underway next week in Geneva, Thailand wants to live up to its reputation as a champion of the anti-smoking crusade--despite efforts by the U.S. government to snuff out this record.
The Thai government, say public health officials, has hinted that it will be among the early supporters of the Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (FCTC) that is due to be adopted at the WHA.
The United States is hoping to gut the treaty. It wants to allow any nation to choose to opt out of any of the FCTC's provisions... allow(ing) the tobacco industry to renegotiate the treaty on a country-by-country basis and lobby each nation to ignore treaty provisions the industry does not like.
''The cabinet and the national FCTC committee are backing the idea of Thailand making its point at the assembly,'' says Dr Hatai Chitanondh, president of the Bangkok-based Thai Health Promotion Institute, a non-governmental organization (NGO).
The adoption of the convention on tobacco control has been billed as a key feature of the WHA, which is the annual meeting of the 192 states that are members of the World Health Organization (WHO). The meeting in the Swiss city will run from May 19-28.
If adopted and subsequently ratified, the convention will become the WHO's first global treaty on public health. Negotiated over four years, it aims to regulate smoking, the advertising of tobacco products and the illicit trade of cigarettes, among other issues.
''We are happy with the text,'' says Hatai, who represented Thailand during the drafting of the convention. ''It offers Third World countries that have no tobacco policies a way to have better control measures.''
''The FCTC serves as a good starting point to have a cohesive global policy on tobacco,'' adds Bungon Rittthiphakdee, director of special programs at the Thai Health Promotion Foundation in Bangkok.
Yet public health activists like Hatai are quick to point out that there are features of Thailand's national anti-smoking policies that are already stronger than what the FCTC serves up.
Health warnings on cigarette packets sold in this South-east Asian country are a case in point, where Thai policy insists that the warning about the hazards of smoking covers 50 percent of the outer cover of a packet. The anti-tobacco convention, by contrast, expects such warnings to be cover 30 percent of the packet's cover.
Likewise, Thailand is only the second country after Canada to insist that cigarette producers disclose all the ingredients that went into the making of their product.
''We also have the most comprehensive ban on cigarette advertising,'' adds Hatai.
To such measures was added Thailand's ban on smoking in 22 types of public areas. The push for such smoke-free zones, which came into effect in November last year, range from buses, taxis and phone booths to air-conditioned restaurants, shopping malls and theatres.
Currently, according to available records, there are over 10 million smokers in a population of 61 million people in Thailand. The majority are males, and the number includes children who have started smoking at the age of 11 years.
Studies show that Thailand's figures on smoking contrasts with that of nearby Indonesia, where over 80 percent of young men smoke before they are 20 years. In South Korea, researchers say that one in three of the country's 46 million people smoke a pack a day.
In fact, the high cigarette consumption rate in this region has prompted the WHO to state that ''East Asia has the second highest annual per capita growth in tobacco consumption." Currently, according to the U.N. health agency, there are some 1.1 billion smokers across the globe.
But Thailand's tough anti-smoking policies, which have earned it praise from the WHO as a model for other countries in the region to follow, has not deterred the U.S. government from trying to lobby Bangkok to support changes Washington is seeking in the FCTC.
The U.S. government has approached the Thai government to back its efforts to delete the anti-tobacco convention's clause that there would be no room for parties to it to make reservations. ''We would like your support in deleting this provision from the FCTC prior to its approval at the World Health Assembly,'' states a note describing the position of the U.S. government.
In essence, the United States, by sending a ''diplomatic note'' to member countries of the WHO, is asking ''for their support in reopening the treaty negotiations,'' Judy Wilkenfeld, director of international programs at the Washington D.C.-based Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids, said in an e-mail interview.
''The United States is hoping to gut the treaty. It wants to allow any nation to choose to opt out of any of the FCTC's provisions," she adds. That change would ''allow the tobacco industry to renegotiate the treaty on a country-by-country basis and lobby each nation to ignore treaty provisions the industry does not like.''
Despite their opposition to Washington's position, developing countries are ''coming under heavy pressure from the United States to accede to its demands,'' Wilkenfeld reveals.
But the Thai government will withstand such pressure, Hatai predicts. ''During the negotiations over the FCTC, I was a vocal opponent of the efforts by the U.S. to include this change to the convention.''
''For this treaty to work, we need solidarity, not loopholes,'' he adds. ''Thailand has a role to play in achieving such support for the treaty, given its lead on tobacco policies.''
Copyright 2003 IPS