With the hearts and minds of most Americans focused on the war in Iraq and its aftermath, the international landscape appears bleak and troubled. But this month also brings great promise for international cooperation in the best sense.
In late May, the world’s first public health treaty – the Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (FCTC) – will be adopted by the World Health Assembly in Geneva. This historic document will change the way tobacco giants like Philip Morris (now Altria) can operate globally. One of the FCTC’s groundbreaking provisions is a ban on tobacco advertising, promotion and sponsorship, allowing exceptions only for constitutional reasons. The treaty also establishes important precedents for international regulation of other industries that profit at the expense of human health and the environment.
The story of how this treaty came about is one of hope. The developing world, led by a block of all 46 African nations and supported by dozens of advocacy groups, united around protecting the health of their people from the deadly expansion of Big Tobacco. Throughout the process, the U.S. practiced its now-predictable but increasingly unacceptable “cowboy diplomacy” approach to international treaties on the environment and human rights.
Despite staunch United States opposition and aggressive attempts by Philip Morris/Altria and its allies to derail the treaty, when implemented the FCTC will go a long way toward curbing the global spread of tobacco addiction. While the United States and the tobacco industry may attempt to block adoption of the final text, the momentum appears too strong for even the United States to stand in its way.
Last month in Richmond, Va., Philip Morris/Altria held its first annual shareholders’ meeting with its new name. Just recently off the hook for a $12 billion bond payment in Illinois (reduced to $6 billion), and looking ahead to a $289 billion Department of Justice lawsuit, the tobacco giant continues to be confronted with the enormous costs it imposes on society. Its name change to Altria is perhaps the clearest signal to date that the corporation cannot continue business as usual in a public climate that adamantly rejects its deadly practices.
A study released in the April issue of the American Journal of Public Health – “Altria Means Tobacco: Philip Morris’s Identity Crisis” – provides extensive evidence that the name change is the height of a long-term effort to manipulate consumers and policymakers. According to internal corporate documents, the tobacco giant decided to take the major risk of changing its name in order to mask the negatives associated with the tobacco business. However, in an example of the financial community’s deteriorating confidence, Moody’s Investor Services recently cut Philip Morris/Altria’s bond rating to just above junk status.
The tide has clearly turned against Big Tobacco. As the FCTC becomes international law and is implemented in countries across the globe, public health advocates around the world will continue to ensure that it stays that way.
Patricia Lynn is campaign director of Infact. For more information, visit www.infact.org