WASHINGTON - Skeptical about its commitment to the new global tobacco control treaty, U.S. public health groups are calling on the administration of President George W. Bush, which quietly signed the treaty Monday, to swiftly follow up by submitting it to the U.S. Senate for ratification.
They are also urging the administration to take other measures demonstrating its independence from the tobacco industry, including increasing aid to low- and middle-income countries to support their efforts to reduce smoking.
"Signing the treaty without committing to its ratification would be little more than public relations gesture," said Judith Wilkenfield of the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids. "By ratifying the treaty, and supporting its effective implementation domestically and internationally, the U.S. can again become a leader in protecting public health around the world."
The U.S. became the 108th nation to sign treaty, the Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (FCTC), when Health and Human Services (HHS) Secretary Tommy Thompson traveled to UN headquarters Monday to do so. A total of 109 countries, including all members of the European Union, have signed it, of which 12 have ratified it.
The World Health Organization (WHO), which negotiated the treaty, has set June 29 as a deadline for all countries to sign it, but it will take effect only after 40 countries have ratified it. Under the U.S. Constitution, two thirds of the Senate must vote in favor of a treaty to ratify it.
In a statement released Monday, HHS said the treaty must still complete an inter-agency review of the treaty before submitting it to the Senate but did not indicate how long this will take. "The United States has long been a world leader in anti-smoking efforts," Thompson said. "President Bush and I look forward to working with the WHO and other member nations to implement this agreement."
Some four million people each year die - 400,000 of them in the U.S. -- as a result of tobacco-related diseases. If current trends continue, the global annual death toll is expected to rise to 10 million within two decades, with 70 percent of those deaths likely to take place in developing countries.
As smoking rates in recent years have generally fallen in developed countries, developing countries have increasingly become the primary targets of tobacco companies that have steadily increased the amount of advertising and other market-promoting activities there.
The CFTC, which was adopted by the World Health Assembly one year ago, is designed in major part to counter these efforts. It requires ratifying nations to implement a comprehensive ban on tobacco advertising, promotion and sponsorship except in those countries where such activities could be held to violate free-speech guarantees and to require the use of large health warning labels covering at least 30 percent of cigarette packs sold within their borders. In addition, it requires member-states to prohibit tobacco product sales to minors.
The treaty also provides recommendations for legislation covering second-hand smoke protections, tobacco taxation, additional regulation of tobacco products, and measures to prevent cigarette smuggling.
While praising the purposes of the FCTC, the tobacco industry, often supported by the Bush administration, opposed certain provisions - particularly restrictions on advertising and marketing. At the annual meeting of tobacco giant Philip Morris/Altria just last month, the company's chairman, Louis Camilleri, condemned the treaty's ban on these activities.
"Philip Morris/Altria has close ties to a number of key players in the Bush administration, including HHS Secretary Thompson and (Bush's top political aide) Karl Rove," according to Kathryn Mulvey, the executive director of Infact, a non-partisan group that has campaigned against corporate practices that allegedly threaten the health of consumers, particularly in the developing world.
"Now that the U.S. has signed, will this administration push for the Senate to ratify quickly during this election year?" she asked, adding that her group "will be closely monitoring our government's next steps."
She added Washington has used its signature to gain far-reaching concessions in negotiations in treaties, such as the Convention on the Rights of the Child, the Convention on Biological Diversity, and the Persistent Organic Pollutants Treaty, but then failed to ratify them.
"The US government has fought the FCTC every step of the way, even while they've publicly claimed to support it," she said, adding that the administration can establish its good faith only by moving to ratify the treaty before the elections.
Her statement was echoed by Georges Benjamin, executive director of the American Public Health Association (APHA) and by John Seffrin, the director of the American Cancer Society.
"The treaty is a critical first step in defusing the world's ticking tobacco time bomb," said Seffrin. "Signing it is absolutely the right thing to do, but it will only be meaningful if it is backed by concrete action''. In addition to ratification, he said the administration should provide more financial and technical support to developing countries and reform U.S. and international trade policies to discourage, rather than promote as he said they do now, tobacco consumption.
Wilkenfeld said the treaty reflects the recommendations of the scientific and health communities in the United States complained that Washington had "consistently fought to weaken almost every provision of the treaty during the negotiations and supported positions consistent with those of the tobacco industry." Among its tactics, she said, was threatening to withhold aid to international tobacco-control efforts if its positions were not adopted.
Just before final agreement was reached, the Bush administration attempted to reopen parts of the final text in a move that drew angry remarks from other delegations. In the face of united opposition, the U.S. dropped its request.
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