For a cleaner healthier world, measures to protect integrity of public policy are critical

Wednesday May 31 2023
no smoking campaign

Students perform a show to highlight a no-smoking campaign in in Bangkok, Thailand. PHOTO | CHANAT KATANYU | BANGKOK POST VIA AFP


United Nations bodies already offer the tools to remove industry obstacles from the path of a liveable climate and improved public health. We need to use them.

For decades, industry produced vehicle fuel with lead additives. The decision by carmakers and refiners helped vehicles achieve greater power and was patented by its producers. It also poisoned human beings.

This was not a surprise. As early as the Roman era there were suspicions that lead damaged human health, and — more immediately — workers at the plants producing tetraethyl lead in the 1920s were reporting extreme medical conditions. Some died.

Yet science is always playing catch-up, just as a lie sprint around the world while the truth is still lacing its shoes. Science, careful and meticulous, has to find a way even as industry deploys its resources to hamper change and distort the truth.

Although there was sufficient evidence to strongly suspect a link, it took time to provide proof, meaning it was the 1970s before action really got underway. Only in 2021 was the United Nations finally able to help bring about a complete ban.

The story of leaded fuel helps explain the enormous barriers to banning harmful products, even when the evidence is incontrovertible, and when governments could reasonably apply the precautionary principle to justify legislation. That’s why tobacco products remain on sale despite the certain scientific knowledge that they kill as many as half its users — more than eight million a year, every year.


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A stubborn foe

The tobacco industry, in particular, has proved a stubborn foe. The world recognised this almost two decades ago, when in 2005 — after decades of trying to rein in the industry using other mechanisms — the WHO Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (WHO FCTC) entered into force. Embedded in the Convention, as one of the international obligations reflecting the global resolve to address the tobacco epidemic was Article 5.3, which acknowledged the role of commercial enterprises in disease creation.

Article 5.3 is just 35 words long, but along with the Guidelines for implementation adopted by the governing body of the WHO FCTC, it is absolutely central to the Convention: It recognises the damage done by an industry indifferent to public health goals, and eager to prioritise profits over policies to reduce the demand for, and supply of, its harmful products.

This provision has been critical in ensuring appropriate safeguards are in place to protect the integrity of public health policies from interference by industry and thus achieve effective implementation of the Convention.

The evidence gathered by the Secretariat of the WHO FCTC and its 182 Parties, as well as by tobacco control stakeholders around the world, is clear — the tobacco industry continues to interfere in almost every conceivable way in its efforts to confound the aims of the Convention and to sidestep Article 5.3.

This provision is not a cure-all; the industry is well-financed and willing to ruthlessly pursue its economic self-interest.

But it is equally the case that without this article, implementation of our global public health treaty would have been much less effective if subjected to the full might of industry.

The existence of Article 5.3 at the heart of the Convention provides a meaningful way for stakeholders to safeguard the creation of public health policy and to support Parties to the WHO FCTC to fulfil their commitments.

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Lessons from the Convention

There are important lessons to apply from the Convention when addressing industry interference in climate policy. Indeed, the WHO FCTC Secretariat is open to sharing its experience although, of course, not all conventions should follow exactly the same path.

But there are certainly important parallels. The United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) requests its Parties to protect the climate system for the benefit of present and future generations of humankind, while the WHO FCTC includes in its objective the protection of present and future generations from the devastating health, social, environmental and economic consequences of tobacco consumption and exposure to tobacco smoke.

Another link is that tobacco, during its entire life cycle from cultivation to consumer waste, has a negative impact on the environment. It uses and destroys soil that could be used for cultivating food crops, and it contributes to deforestation, desertification, and greenhouse emissions. Cigarette butts — which many people do not realize are made of plastic — are a major pollutant on coastlines and in seas, with more than 4.5 trillion butts estimated to be discarded annually.

The world faces multiple emergencies, something referred to as “an omnicrisis” in the Financial Times recently, and the fossil fuel and tobacco industries — among others — are part of the problem. There is also a nexus between the environment and health policy, and global human rights.

This point was highlighted by United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres at the opening of the General Assembly session in September 2022, when he described humanity’s “suicidal war against nature”.

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He demanded that fossil fuel producers be held to account and pointed to their multibillion-dollar business with its huge public relations machine.

“Just as they did for the tobacco industry decades before, lobbyists and spin doctors have spewed harmful misinformation,” he said, and added, “Polluters must pay.”

Genuine corporate liability is key to a better world, and it’s wholly reasonable to require businesses to behave ethically. They must not twist the science, distort the facts, misrepresent the risks or divert attention from their misbehaviour with “social responsibility” or “sustainability” schemes, a ‘new’ term that industry has appropriated.

All UN treaty organisations must be aware that while big business is often desperate for a place at the decision-making table, it is not there to help humanity. If we want a cleaner and healthier world where humanity can thrive, special measures to protect the integrity of public policy are absolutely critical.

Dr Adriana Blanco Marquizo, Head of Secretariat of the WHO Framework Convention on Tobacco Control.