The U.S. is on the sidelines as public health officials from around the world meet in Bangkok this week to put into action a global treaty to curb death and disease caused by tobacco use. More than 190 countries unanimously adopted the treaty in 2003. Since then, 148 countries have moved to ratified it, but not the US. The World Health Organization estimates that the broad implementation of the treaty could save up to 200 million lives by 2050.
"The US is completely losing stature as a leader on tobacco control because of our lack of action on the global tobacco treaty," says Patty Lynn of Corporate Accountability International, a corporate watchdog group that has monitored the treaty's development.
The treaty commits ratifying countries to adopting measures to reduce tobacco use such as stronger warning labels, advertising restrictions in accordance with the each nation's laws and constitution, higher tobacco taxes, and protections against second-hand smoke.
When the US signed the treaty three years ago, officials praised it for encouraging other nations to adopt tobacco control standards similar to those in place in the US.
Public health advocates say the Bush administration has stalled the ratification process, and is putting the United States behind the rest of world. "The only message we are sending is that we care more about protecting American tobacco companies than we do in preventing deaths from the use of tobacco," says Matt Myers of the Campaign for Tobacco Free Kids, a leading U.S. anti-tobacco group.
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In the United States, the treaty would require the federal regulation of tobacco, which is currently unregulated. A spokeswoman for Altria, the parent company of Phillip Morris USA, the largest US tobacco company, told ABC News that that the company supports the treaty's ratification, and federal regulation of tobacco. "We continue to fully support strong regulation of tobacco products in every country where our companies do business," according to a company statement.
Philip Morris' main US competitor, R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Company, did not respond to requests for comment, though it has publicly stated concern that provisions restricting advertising and requiring federal regulation of tobacco would hurt its ability to compete with other cigarette makers.
Tobacco industry critics say that Philip Morris' position is motivated by profits, because it would solidify its number one position in the market.
A State Department spokesman told ABC News that the treaty "remains actively under consideration within the administration," and would not comment further on the status of the treaty. The White House did not respond to ABC News request for comment.
Myers says the administration has never offered a reason for why it has not moved to ratify the treaty. "Formal and informal requests to the White House have always received the same answer: 'we're studying it.' You could be reading disabled and have finished studying it by now," says Myers.
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