What can we learn from industry interference around the global tobacco treaty?

Bobby Ramakant, writer for Citizen News Service

Tobacco Industry CAI

As the threat of corporate capture looms over human rights processes, we can learn from efforts to reduce corporate interference in the global tobacco treaty.

This blog is part of the debate blog series on the proposed treaty and its complementarity with the UN Guiding Principles. We believe that an inclusive and open debate is crucial to make sure these initiatives deliver for everyone, and that the business & human rights movement continues its 'unity in diversity'.

Corporate capture of efforts to hold corporations accountable for their human rights abuses is not new, rather historically it has been there menacingly gnawing into public interest. One classic example is nearly one and a half decade long process of the global tobacco treaty negotiations, and how tobacco industry used myriad ways to thwart progress, interfere with public health policy making and despite which governments were able to make landmark progress on adapting guidelines to check industry interference.

The global tobacco treaty, formally called Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (WHO FCTC), have seen innumerable instances of industry interference. Nevertheless, historic progress could happen with adoption of WHO FCTC Article 5.3 guidelines in November 2008 by countries that have ratified the global tobacco treaty. This was undoubtedly a major milestone in tobacco control. FCTC Article 5.3 was globally recognized as a backbone of the global tobacco treaty. Since 2008, there has been growing recognition of the fundamental and irreconcilable conflict of interest between tobacco industry and public health policy, and countries are at different levels in implementing it domestically. The WHO and other key agencies have recognized that tobacco industry interference is one of the biggest obstacles in turning the tide of the tobacco pandemic. Recognizing how critically important it is to firewall public health policy and FCTC implementation from tobacco industry interference, a lot more work should have happened globally in rolling FCTC Article 5.3 on the ground.

By March 2015, there were 10 countries that strongly met one or more of the FCTC Article 5.3 guideline recommendations. In March 2015, we learnt that 140 countries have submitted a report on implementation of FCTC Article 5.3. Two-thirds of them have taken some steps to prevent tobacco industry interference since 2012 - an increase of 14% since 2012.

That being said, FCTC Article 5.3 is still not fully recognized by many governments and civil society as the backbone and the most crucial element of the treaty. For example, the uptake by governments of the "Roadmap to protecting health from Big Tobacco" produced by Corporate Accountability International in 2014 has been far from what was expected. This roadmap is a step-by-step guide to assist public officials and advocates in translating FCTC Article 5.3 guidelines into laws, policies, and enforcement mechanisms.

In Philippines for instance, despite tobacco industry pressures, it has been able to make some headway in implementing FCTC Article 5.3. In 2010 a joint memorandum circular (JMC) was issued by Civil Service Commission (CSC) and Department of Health. An Article 5.3 Committee was also formed that raised awareness of the government on tobacco control and tobacco industry interference. This has resulted in some successes. Over a period of time Article 5.3 policies have been adopted by many departments. The Department of Education has rejected donations from the tobacco industry. But work remains in coming years on implementing FCTC Article 5.3 too. Irene Reyes, a leader of Network for Accountability of Tobacco Transnationals (NATT) had shared with Citizen News Service (CNS) in March 2015 that tobacco industry should be removed from tobacco regulatory committees; tobacco industry's CSR activities should be banned; advocacy and communication strategies around FCTC Article 5.3 and tobacco industry interference be strengthened.

To recollect, the FCTC Article 5.3 guidelines have 4 principles:

    (i) there is a fundamental and irreconcilable conflict of interest between tobacco industry interests and public health policy interests;

    (ii) Parties when dealing with tobacco industry or those working to further its interests should be accountable and transparent;

    (iii) Parties should require tobacco industry or those working to further its interests to operate in a manner that is accountable and transparent;

    (iv) As their products are lethal, the tobacco industry should not be granted incentives to establish or run their businesses.Parties to FCTC should interact with tobacco industry only when and to the extent necessary, to enable them to effectively regulate the tobacco industry and tobacco products.

Let us remind ourselves of what head of the WHO Dr Margaret Chan said:

"The tobacco industry has changed its face and its tactics. The wolf is no longer in sheep’s clothing, and its teeth are bared. Tactics aimed at undermining anti-tobacco campaigns, and subverting the Framework Convention, are no longer covert or cloaked by an image of corporate social responsibility. They are out in the open and they are extremely aggressive."

The three largest global tobacco corporations – Philip Morris International (PMI), British American Tobacco (BAT) and Japan Tobacco (JT) – had combined revenues of US$210 billion in 2010. That’s greater than the combined GDPs of the following countries in which they operate: Jordan, Panama, Kenya, Cambodia, Mozambique, Bolivia, Mali, Liechtenstein, Estonia, and Ghana.

According to the Corporate Accountability International, which played a seminal role in mobilizing and lobbying for adoption and then implementation of WHO FCTC Article 5.3 and is now leading civil society efforts for stronger civil and criminal liability measures (WHO FCTC Article 19), “The immense financial power, combined with the political influence the industry wields pose the greatest threat to the success of the global tobacco treaty and its ability to save lives. Tobacco corporations are attempting to weaken, delay and defeat tobacco control legislation around the world.”

The tobacco industry has used myriad ways to slow down the progress of the global tobacco treaty implementation on the ground, such as:

  • Litigation, where costly lawsuits intimidate governments and squander resources
  • Government "partnerships," including promoting voluntary regulation, drafting and distributing tobacco-friendly sample legislation, gaining favor by bankrolling government health initiatives on other issues, and providing funds directly to government regulatory bodies.
  • Subverting bans on advertising and marketing through tactics such as sponsorship of concerts and sporting events, as well as the promotion of so-called "corporate social responsibility."
  • Supporting front groups like the International Tobacco Growers’ Association.

As the work around a proposed business and human rights treaty inches forward, we need strong measures in place to check industry interference right from the very beginning. We cannot afford to forget lessons from the past!

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Bobby Ramakant has been part of every Conference of the Parties (COP) to the WHO FCTC so far as part of Network for Accountability of Tobacco Transnationals (NATT) leadership. He works with Citizen News Service (CNS), is part of the Corporate Capture advisory group of ESCR-Net, and is also involved with National Alliance of People’s Movements (NAPM), Asha Parivar and Socialist Party (India). Twitter: @bobbyramakant, email: [email protected] )