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UN: WHO Moving Toward Tobacco-Control Accord

By Zamira Echanova

The UN-affiliated World Health Organization, or WHO, has been holding public hearings on a proposed international convention to control the sale of tobacco. Tobacco usage among adults is on the decline in the West for health reasons, and the public-health community says that tobacco advertising is now aimed principally at young people in developing and post-communist countries. RFE/RL's Zamira Echanova reports from WHO headquarters in Geneva.

Geneva, 13 October 2000 (RFE/RL) -- The World Health Organization ends two days of public hearings today in Geneva on a proposed accord on controlling tobacco consumption. Almost 180 representatives of public-health groups and major tobacco companies have explained their position on the Framework Convention on Tobacco Control.

WHO and the public-health community say tobacco companies such as Phillip Morris and British-American Tobacco, or BAT, now deliberately aim their advertising at young people around the world, especially in developing and post-communist nations. They say that this policy costs four million lives annually and that unless the current trend is stopped, tobacco-related disease will claim 10 million lives a year by 2030.

WHO says that tobacco addiction is a communicable disease -- spread through advertising, marketing and sponsorship. The organization is urging a complete ban on tobacco advertising worldwide.

Public-health activists say the tobacco industry has consistently fought tobacco advertising bans and efforts at control. David Davies, who has represented Phillip Morris at the WHO hearings, says this criticism is not justified. At a press conference, Davies said that Phillip Morris fully supports the efforts of the public-health community on the proposed convention.

"Our companies believe that it is important to have worldwide regulation of tobacco products. Sensible regulation of tobacco benefits society and consumers everywhere. It also benefits our business. With regulation comes stability and predictability."

But WHO official Derek Yach says that such statements will not end the ongoing battle between the tobacco industry and the public-health community. Nor, he says, will they serve to eliminate the harm caused by smoking:

"There is the direct impact on 1,200 million smokers in the world -- substantially more, by their [that is, the tobacco companies'] own admission, than there would be if they had not put in place the enormous lobbying and other pressures on governments over the last years."

Yach called on the tobacco industry to stop lobbying governments against the convention if they want to reach a consensus on the public health issues.

Public-health groups stress that tobacco usage is shifting from developed countries to the developing world. They say companies like Phillip Morris and BAT, faced with sales problems in the West, are investing millions of dollars to take over markets in Third-World and post-communist nations.

In these nations, they point out, there are sometimes no regulations or legislation controlling tobacco sales. In addition, the level of public awareness of tobacco's harmful effects on health is low and governments are often desperate to attract foreign investment. As a result, more and more young people -- and particularly young women -- are becoming tobacco addicts.

Jolanta Babiliute, chief editor of "Lietuvos Sveikata," a private health journal in Lithuania, says that even in countries confronted with complex socio-economic and political difficulties, governments, media and non-governmental organizations can increase public awareness about tobacco-related diseases. She says that her country could serve as an example.

'What we achieved in tiny Lithuania, with a 3 million population, is that smoking has become less popular and is not spreading among young people."

But in other post-communist countries, few inroads have been made in tobacco consumption.

Tatyana Bateneva, a health correspondent for the Russian daily "Izvestiya," says that neither Russia's government nor society is ready to take steps to control tobacco consumption. She says that's because both Russian officials and ordinary citizens think that there are many more serious problems that the country needs to address first. But she believes that the Russian government needs to protect the health of its population, which is in the long-term interest of the state.

"I think it is a very important for our country that the government defines its position. Because our people listens to what the state tells them. If the State Duma continues to refuse to adopt proposed legislation on tobacco control, it will provide new arguments for [those who smoke]."

WHO's Kyrgyz national Program Officer on Health Promotion, Cholpon Asambaeva, says that in Kyrgyzstan the public-health community is trying to increase public awareness on tobacco-related diseases through seminars and media.

"Our government is considering a draft law on tobacco control, which is expected to be adopted by parliament soon."

But Asambaeva stresses that media in Kyrgyzstan work under strong pressure from the tobacco industry. Non-state news organizations are heavily dependent on tobacco advertising, which is their main source of income. That is why, she says, the entire responsibility for public health issues rests with state media.

WHO is hoping that the situation in developing and post-communist societies will change once its Framework Convention on Tobacco Control is adopted by member states. Health, finance and agricultural officials from the organization's member states will begin negotiations on the convention Monday (Oct 16). The convention is expected to be adopted by 2003.