Ban seeks to stop Big tobacco from influencing health policies

Thursday December 01 2016

Tobacco firms have been accused of trying to influence health policies that seek to curb cigarette smoking. PHOTO | FILE

Global anti-tobacco lobbyists have pushed through a new moratorium that seeks to stop tobacco companies from interfering in public health policy matters and to be liable for tobacco related health costs in any member country that has signed to the World Health Organisation’s Framework Convention on Tobacco Control.

The resolution, reached in New Delhi, India during the World Health Organisation’s Seventh Session of the Conference of Parties (COP7) on November 12, aims to localise protection against the tobacco industry under Article 5.3 of the Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (FCTC).

FCTC contains a provision that protects policy-making processes at both the international and national levels. The provision was created to address the tobacco industry’s strategies to influence policy-making bodies.

“The tobacco industry is the single-largest threat to public health in the world,” said Sheila Ndyanabangi, principal medical officer for mental health and substance abuse and tobacco control at Uganda’s Health Ministry.

This fact is backed by the FCTC’s Global Progress report, which states, “The tobacco industry continues to be the most important barrier in implementation of the Convention.”

“As delegates to the global tobacco treaty, we have an ethical responsibility to prioritize people’s health over the industry’s interests. Today, we recognise that the most urgent task before us is to protect policymaking from the corrosive influence of big tobacco companies,” said Dr Ndyanabangi.


Tobacco is the leading cause of non-communicable diseases such as lung disease, stroke, diabetes, impotence, cancers, heart disease, low birth weight and mental impairment in newborn children. The WHO estimates that tobacco kills more people than HIV, malaria and tuberculosis combined. It is estimated that tobacco-related illnesses kill six million people a year.

In November 2015, the BBC exposed British American Tobacco (BAT) for bribing an official from the Burundi Ministry of Health and an FCTC representative to “support” the corporation’s interests in international negotiations about tobacco regulations. Similar charges were also made about a Uganda legislator seeking favourable legislation during the Anti-Tobacco Bill debate; while in Kenya, BAT was accused of corporate espionage and sabotaging competitors.  

Interference by the tobacco industry in international treaty negotiations has been so rampant that delegates kicked out industry representatives from the past two treaty negotiations.

“We need to stop tobacco firms from interfering in public health policy. We have witnessed meddling in Nigeria, across Africa and at global treaty meetings,” said Akinbode Oluwafemi, deputy executive director of Environmental Rights Action and Friends of the Earth Nigeria.

To date, dozens of governments have implemented measures in line with Article 5.3 at the national level, and more are expected to follow suit. For instance, Norway has divested more than $2 billion from the tobacco industry.

Brazil adopted guidelines for representatives of its tobacco control commission (CONICQ), which require that it has no ties with the tobacco industry. The European Union has terminated its agreement with Philip Morris International, an American global tobacco and cigarette company. The Philippines has restricted public officials from interacting with the tobacco industry to curb its influence.

Besides that, delegates discussed introducing tools to hold the tobacco industry liable, based on a broader treaty directive in Article 19 that encourages governments to, among other recommendations, utilise legal systems to recoup the enormous costs of tobacco-related healthcare coverage.

“Given the industry’s widespread lying, cheating, and outright bribery, governments are ready to act. The global tobacco control community is poised to protect decisions about people’s health from narrow corporate interests, and pave the way for a future where Big Tobacco and its bullying are a thing of the past,” said John Stewart, deputy director, Corporate Accountability International, an accredited observer to the global tobacco treaty proceedings.

Other stringent measures as per FCTC include: Increasing tobacco taxes up to 70 per cent; warning labels to occupy 60 per cent of the cigarette packet; an end to advertising in any form of media and non-sponsorship of sports.