Currently the intergovernmental talks on the legally binding global tobacco treaty are taking place in Panama. This meeting, formally called the tenth session of the Conference of the Parties (COP10) to the World Health Organisation Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (WHO FCTC), has delegates from 183 countries representing more than 90 per cent of the world’s population, to review progress in the implementation of the global tobacco treaty, and take the next steps to help achieve the right of all people to lead healthy lives.
The global tobacco treaty (WHO FCTC) is the first ever public health and corporate accountability treaty of the WHO. If implemented fully it will protect human and environmental health. It plays a pivotal role in saving lives even as the tobacco industry comes up with newer tactics to entice new consumers and mint more profits.
Article 5.3 of the FCTC acknowledges the inherent conflict between the industry and public health policy. It calls to “Protect public health policies from commercial and other vested interests of the tobacco industry.” It prohibits the tobacco industry from having any role in policymaking. However, Big Tobacco still interferes with the treaty, year after year, to protect its profits. The tobacco industry is always present in the spaces in which the governments are trying to regulate it.
The Asian Tobacco Industry Interference Index 2023 published by the Southeast Asia Tobacco Control Alliance (SEATCA) measures the compliance of Article 5.3 in 19 Asian countries on a score of 0 to 100. The higher the score, the worse the country’s performance.
Japan has the strongest tobacco industry interference (score is 88), followed closely by Indonesia (80), Malaysia (76), China (73), Bangladesh( 72) and Lao PDR (70). In contrast, the governments of Brunei with a score of 14 and Mongolia (score of 38) emerge as leaders in their ongoing efforts to combat tobacco industry interference. Brunei, Lao PDR, Maldives, Mongolia, Myanmar, Nepal, India and Thailand have enforced prohibitions on the tobacco industry’s corporate social responsibility (CSR) activities. In Brunei and Lao PDR, stringent regulations are in place to prevent engagement with the tobacco industry.
However, despite these prohibitions, government endorsements of them have been recorded in India, Myanmar, and Thailand during the monitoring period of the Index. In India, significant amounts of CSR contributions by tobacco companies continue to occur, particularly in the areas of agriculture and livelihood. During the COVID-19 pandemic, tobacco companies increased their CSR contributions.
In Myanmar, JTI continues its initiative to provide drinking water for refugees. In Thailand, the Tobacco Authority of Thailand organised the “See, Taste, Shop Chiang Rai Tobacco” project for Chiang Rai residents, facilitating agricultural product trading. In Indonesia, CSR activities are encouraged under national laws. While there is a restriction of tobacco industry sponsorships, it is weakly enforced.
Tobacco industry CSR is not banned and remains a big problem in Cambodia, Malaysia, Philippines, and Vietnam. In Cambodia, the industry engaged in various COVID-19 relief efforts, including providing alcohol dispensers and banners to the Ministry of Justice, distributing food packages in lockdown areas, and donating disinfection supplies to provincial administration.
With the exception of Brunei, which has prohibited duty-free tobacco products, all countries surveyed still permit duty-free allowances for international travellers. This practice undermines the effectiveness of tobacco taxation, and promotes and normalises tobacco use.
Some countries are taking preventive measures. Ten countries, namely Brunei, India, Indonesia, Lao PDR, Maldives, Mongolia, Myanmar, Nepal, the Philippines, and Thailand, have proactively introduced policy measures aimed at safeguarding the bureaucracy or a specific ministry or department from undue interference by the tobacco industry.
Policies for disclosing records of interactions with the tobacco industry and its representatives are in place in countries such as Brunei, India, Maldives, the Philippines, Sri Lanka, and Thailand. Nepal is also in the process of drafting such a policy. However, the effectiveness of these policies is hindered by the fact that governments do not disclose or make information from these interactions available to the general public.
SEATCA calls upon all governments to fortify their commitment to the implementation of Article 5.3 for the effective realisation of tobacco control measures. ‘It is crucial to ensure the protection of public health policy against the efforts and influence of the tobacco industry, as the success of the industry is diametrically opposed to the safeguarding of public health and sustainability by nature.’
During a recent media briefing hosted by the Network for Accountability of Tobacco Transnationals (NATT), just ahead of COP10 to WHO FCTC, Labram Musah, Executive Director, Vision for Alternative Development (Ghana) shared the findings of the African Tobacco Industry Interference Index 2023 for the 18 countries of the AFRO WHO region.
This index is ‘a critical assessment tool to scrutinise and quantify the various forms of interference perpetrated by the tobacco industry in public health policymaking’. It focuses on how the tobacco industry participates in policy development, the industry’s CSR activities, benefits accorded to the tobacco industry by governments, as well as unnecessary interactions that occur between government officials and the tobacco industry that could facilitate policy interference. The index also sheds light on the level of implementation of preventive measures as recommended by the WHO FCTC.
Musah shared specific examples of tobacco industry participation in policy development in Cameroon and Mozambique; unnecessary interactions between the government and the tobacco industry in Nigeria; and CSR activities by the industry in Lagos, Ghana and Madagascar.
The index shows that African governments do not adequately address conflict of interest situations and current and former public officials continue to work for and in the interest of the tobacco industry. As per the index findings, Zambia, Tanzania and Mozambique continue to have the highest level of tobacco industry interference from 2020-2023 in almost all indicators.
However, there have been some positive improvements in increasing tobacco taxes in Ghana, Mauritius, South Africa and Nigeria. In 2023, Mauritius became the first African country to introduce plain tobacco packaging and received the acknowledgement of being the first in Africa to adopt the WHO full-scale tobacco control measures along with the Netherlands, Brazil, and Turkey.
It is very important to denormalise and ban the industry’s CSR activities, fast-track the passing of pending tobacco control laws, maintain a strong stance against tobacco industry interference, and encourage and empower civil society to act as watch dogs, says Musah.
Dr. Tara Singh Bam, Board Director, Asia Pacific Cities Alliance for Health and Development and Regional Director for Asia Pacific of the International Union Against Tuberculosis and Lung Disease (The Union) says it is high time to build government’s accountability to ensure implementation of WHO FCTC.
“It is the government’s role to ensure there is accountability, and at COP10 to WHO FCTC, the governments are there to discuss the implementation of the global tobacco treaty. We see governments are part of the solution, but they can also be part of the problem. On one hand, they are part of the FCTC, and on the other hand, they are partners with the tobacco industry because they see the tobacco industry as having benefits – contributions to political campaigns for example. The tobacco industry is not part of the solution, they are the problem,” he said.
Let us hope that the decisions made by the delegates at COP10 from the countries that have ratified the WHO FCTC, will further protect people around the world from the devastating health, social, economic and environmental consequences of tobacco consumption and exposure to tobacco smoke, as well as help to eliminate all forms of illicit trade in tobacco products. And to make the most out of this moment all of us have to put as much public pressure on the decision-makers to move forward in the right direction.
(Shobha Shukla is the award-winning founding Managing Editor and Executive Director of CNS (Citizen News Service) and is a feminist, health and development justice advocate)