World health group pushes for treaty to control smoking

Delegates to discuss advertising limits, taxes, tobacco company liability

February 16, 2003|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

ZURICH, Switzerland - It is nearly impossible to find a no-smoking table in a restaurant in Switzerland, a country where one in three people over age 15 lights up.

Despite Switzerland's high cost of living, cigarettes are cheaper here than in any other Western European country, and the number of cancer deaths is rising.

But Switzerland is also the home of the World Health Organization, and delegates from 191 countries are gathering in Geneva this weekend to work on the final text of a treaty to control tobacco and its devastating effects on public health.

"I know that both in France and Switzerland there is smoking in restaurants - I don't like it at all," Gro Harlem Brundtland, the health organization's general director, said in an interview. "You have countries with different levels of tobacco control, and this is not the best example in Europe, no way."

Brundtland hopes to make a point to the delegates as they spend the next 12 days arguing the subtler points of the initiative: It is important to get a treaty that the greatest number of countries are willing to support.

The result of four years of intense negotiations, the initiative is intended to limit advertising and promotion of tobacco, prohibit the use of misleading terms by tobacco companies, impose high taxes and insist that the companies be held liable for their products. Further, tobacco companies will be obliged to divulge all the ingredients in their products and to print warning labels that cover at least 30 percent of the package. The treaty will encourage countries to enact strict measures promoting clean indoor air.

Some countries have been acting on their own. A ban on all tobacco advertising went into effect in Britain on Friday.

But the initiative is unlikely to finance tobacco control programs in poor countries, a point of contention still to be ironed out.

About 4.9 million people die each year from tobacco use, according to the health organization. The toll is expected to double in 20 years, with nearly all the additional deaths projected in developing countries.

Luis Felipe de Seixas Correa, the ambassador to the United Nations from Brazil, the world's largest tobacco producer, will preside over the negotiating sessions. He says the countries that need the most help are the ones least able to pay for the measures about to be passed.

"It is a problem that concerns us all, rich or poor countries," he said. "It is a major public health problem, and of course rich countries have better ways to protect themselves by enforcing legislation and getting public awareness campaigns on track. Poor countries have more limited ways to protect themselves."

De Seixas Correa, who said he quit smoking "15 kilos ago," said he hoped that one of the objectives would be to create a framework to help poor countries pay for tobacco control.

Delegates from 32 African countries meeting recently in Senegal called on the negotiating body to give money to developing countries dependent on growing tobacco to help them switch to other agricultural commodities and to relieve some of their medical burden brought about by tobacco.

The United States, Germany and Japan, whose Finance Ministry owns 67 percent of a tobacco company, have opposed language in the treaty that would mandate such financing.

Here in Switzerland, it is not at all certain whether tough laws would be appreciated.

Volker Kuenzli, director of Switzerland's National Program for Tobacco Prevention, said his country preferred to use persuasion, through public awareness campaigns, rather than legislation to affect public policy.

"The mayor of New York can just ban all smoking in his city," Kuenzli said, referring to a law that will ban smoking in most bars and restaurants when it takes effect March 30. "We have a more liberal approach. We don't want to hurt our economy."

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