Tobacco: a bigger killer than terrorism

Another new challenge faces the United States and, thankfully, this one has little to do with terrorism. In recent weeks, the Bush administration has learned the importance and the value of diplomacy.



The challenge before our leaders now will be to take the cooperative spirit that has emerged since Sept. 11, and harness it for a new urgent issue. Public health is that urgent issue. The first-ever global public health treaty, the Framework Convention on Tobacco Control, is entering its third round of negotiations this November.



Over 150 countries are working together on this agreement. It has the potential to rein in the tobacco transnationals and stop the global spread of tobacco addiction, a deadly trend geared to kill 10 million people worldwide by 2030, according to the World Health Organization.



Over 1,000 Americans die every day from tobacco-related illness. The Framework Convention on Tobacco Control is an opportunity for the U.S. to demonstrate its leadership. The U.S. has been widely criticized for playing obstructionist during this treaty process, as it has with other treaties.



The revolving door between Philip Morris and the White House offers some insight into the U.S. position: Karl Rove, one of Bush's top advisors, worked as a Philip Morris political consultant for six years; Tommy Thompson, head of the Department of Health and Human Services, which is taking a lead role in the treaty, has visited three continents on Philip Morris's dime, and even gone scuba diving with Philip Morris lobbyists in Australia. The list continues.



To the dismay of many, the tobacco industry - like the oil, chemical, and other major industries - is trying to exploit the spirit of bipartisanship that both parties have vowed during a time of crisis. It seeks to push through legislation that would harm public health and the environment.



The tobacco industry's attempts at such profiteering during this period came in the form of the Etheridge Amendment, which would have allowed the government to promote U.S. tobacco overseas. After much public pressure, Rep. Etheridge decided to pull his divisive amendment. In this case, Congressional leaders responded to the public will and took an important stand. The U.S. needs to continue its leadership on this issue and become a positive force in public health beyond our borders; and our best opportunity to do that is through the Framework Convention.



Back at home, signs are emerging that limiting Big Tobacco's ability to advertise to young people is having an impact. Youth tobacco addiction rates have decreased 33 percent since 1997. While this is good news, there is still work to be done to prevent youth tobacco addiction. Nearly 55 percent of current smokers in the 12-17 age group report Marlboro as their usual brand.



Clearly the Marlboro Man, described by its creator as 'the right image to capture the youth market's fancy,' has worked. As support for the treaty continues to build, Philip Morris is spending hundreds of millions of dollars to convince us that it is a responsible 'corporate citizen.'



The reality is that the Marlboro Man continues to attract kids, and is described as the most effective ad icon of all time. If Philip Morris were actually committed to reducing youth smoking, it would end tobacco advertising that appeals to youth, not only in the U.S., but across the globe. Eliminating the Marlboro Man is one critical step.



The right to express ourselves freely is the foundation of our nation, and it is even more important, during trying times like these, to tell our government officials what needs to be done concerning Philip Morris and its spread of global tobacco addiction.



As people across the U.S. raise their voices and urge the government to stand up to Big Tobacco in favor of a tough treaty, they can also take the message directly to Philip Morris through the Kraft Boycott, a growing liability for the tobacco giant.





Patricia Lynn is Infact's associate campaign director. Since 1977, Infact has been exposing life-threatening abuses by transnational corporations, and organizing successful grassroots campaigns to hold corporations accountable to consumers and society at large.