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World: WHO Says, 'No Smoking, Please'

Prague, 19 February 2003 (RFE/RL) -- The World Health Organization (WHO) has set out to make Earth a "no-smoking zone." Well, not really. At least not right away.

But in Geneva this week and next, 192 member states of the WHO's World Health Assembly are negotiating the final touches of what the WHO is calling an international "framework agreement" to persuade the countries of the world to start kicking the tobacco habit.

Jon Liden, a spokesman for the WHO's director-general, told our correspondent that there is good reason to act. "Tobacco is a leading cause of diseases currently. It kills almost 5 million people each year. If it goes unchecked, it will double that figure by 2020. [Almost] the entire increase will take place in developing countries and in the newly independent countries of Eastern Europe and Central Asia," Liden said.

Using a special power provided for in its constitution, the WHO initiated procedures in late 1999 to develop what Liden says is its first international health treaty. "[The] WHO has a mandate to organize and negotiate international treaties on health. It had never been used before, although it is there in the constitution of the organization," Liden said.

WHO Director-General Gro Harlem Brundtland intends the two-week negotiating session that began in Geneva this week -- the fifth such meeting -- to be the final one. Her goal is to win the World Health Assembly's approval of the treaty at its meeting in May. After that, the treaty would go to individual countries for ratification and implementation.

The negotiations, Brundtland said, have sought a delicate balance. In her opening statement to the delegates in Geneva, she cautioned the hard-line health activists who have condemned the treaty's draft text as too weak. Brundtland said, "We may think the tobacco industry would want a bland and unambitious treaty, [but actually] it would love a [tough] treaty that never will be ratified by a large number of key countries."

As drafted, the treaty contains 38 articles aimed at gradually reducing both the supply and demand for tobacco products over the coming years through education, taxation, and increased law enforcement against smuggling, and through controls on advertising and marketing.

Liden said that despite the concerns of health activists, the framework convention assembles a useful body of proposed antismoking measures that have been developed in individual countries around the globe. "Through the treaty, we'll have some very effective, clear text that says the world as a whole sees tobacco as a huge health problem, that it aims at reducing tobacco consumption, [and] that there is a universal understanding of the need to control tobacco supply and tobacco use," Liden said.

He said that tobacco-control measures in large, industrialized countries have already substantially slowed the growth of tobacco use, leaving the populations of poorer, less-developed countries at greatest risk. These, generally, are countries with other intractable health problems, like tuberculosis in Russia and the countries of the former Soviet Union, AIDS and infant mortality in Africa, and illnesses attributed to polluted air and water in parts of Asia.

Liden said that advocates of the new convention hope that it will provide a moral force to ease the work of tobacco-control proponents in countries that need control measures the most. "The fact that there is global agreement on this, that there is very clear text [about] what is good practice and what are the ideals on tobacco control will certainly help legislators when they are facing their own national assemblies with specific laws for their countries," Liden said.

Liden said the negotiations themselves and the higher visibility they have given to tobacco's deleterious health effects and to various effective control measures have already had an impact. "While this process has gone along, countries haven't waited for the actual end result to start their tobacco-control activities," he said. "We have seen an enormous amount of initiatives, particularly in developing countries, that have been spurred by the process of the tobacco framework convention to spur tobacco-control activities in their own countries."

"Many of the Eastern European, Central European countries have done a lot of very effective and interesting actions in terms of tobacco control over the last four years. You can only speculate whether that would have happened at this speed and with that enthusiasm without the global agreement to move toward the framework convention on tobacco control," Liden said.

A case in point is the Czech Republic, whose Chamber of Deputies (lower house) today took up a ban on tobacco advertising. Proponents of the ban argue that smoking is on the increase among young people, who are most readily influenced by advertising.

Tobacco-industry advocates counter that advertising's greatest impact is on the existing market and is directed at winning confirmed smokers from one brand to another. They say an advertising ban will have negative effects on the billboard industry and other advertising media and will inhibit sporting and other events that rely on tobacco-industry sponsorship.

CTK quoted "Marketing and Media" magazine editor Daniel Koepplz as saying the ban would affect moviegoers through increased ticket prices because cinema operators draw 40 percent of their profits from tobacco ads.

CTK reports that about 22,000 of the country's 10 million people die each year of smoking-related illnesses. That's 60 people per day.

Britain recently banned all tobacco advertising in a bid to cut smoking-related illnesses and deaths. Legislation passed by parliament outlaws newspaper, billboard, and Internet advertising of tobacco products in the country.

The European Commission has also said that Western Europe's now widespread ban on tobacco advertising has had little economic impact on the advertising industry.