The tenth conference of parties (COP10) of the World Health Organisation Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (WHO-FCTC), which was to be held in Panama this month, has been cancelled due to social unrest in the country.
The annual meeting, which this year was to take place concurrently with the third meeting of parties to the Protocol to Eliminate Illicit Trade in Tobacco Products, is crucial in advancing control of tobacco use and trade globally.
With more than 1,500 people expected to attend the conference, Panama state officials have cited security concerns of the attendees as the primary reason for cancelling the meetings that were to kick off on November 20.
In a statement, the WHO-FCTC secretariat said the meetings would be held “as early as possible in 2024”, when the security situation in Panama stabilises and the safety of the delegates is guaranteed.
Panama has been experiencing civil unrest since late October, marked by intense demonstrations by citizens protesting the state’s approval of a law endorsing the government’s contract with a mining company sanctioned last month.
Local media report that the protests are gaining momentum by the day, with severe shortages of basic commodities now being experienced, major roads blocked and access to essential services cut off.
According to a situation report by the Red Cross Society of Panama, within five days of the protests, 37 police officers had been injured, and 51 commercial establishments, 15 government institutions and 37 vehicles vandalised.
By October 28, nearly all schools in the country had been closed and institutions of higher learning shut.
The government requested medical support from the red cross as angry protesters were even assaulting healthcare workers and hijacking ambulances ferrying patients. Despite the cancellation of the crucial meeting that serves as a stage for checking progress on tobacco control across countries and setting new targets, the secretariat says they will continue its work uninterrupted.
In a statement on Thursday, the secretariat said it would continue helping the parties with “implementing their obligations under the treaties and to protect their present and future generations from the devastating health, social, environmental and economic consequences of tobacco consumption and exposure to tobacco smoke.”
The WHO-FCTC was adopted in 2003 to control tobacco use in public spaces to advance global health.
In East Africa, the treaty has since been ratified by all countries, with Kenya having been the first in 2007. By ratifying the treaty and becoming parties to the FCTC, countries commit to stringently implement tobacco control rules within their jurisdictions, including through restriction of advertisement of tobacco products and public smoking.
Tobacco is estimated to kill more than eight million people globally every year, over 15 percent of whom die from exposure to indirect smoke. In Kenya, close to 9,000 people die every year due to tobacco smoking.