The world's first tobacco control treaty will go into effect today, requiring ratified nations to impose a ban on tobacco advertising, to place graphic health warnings on cigarette packs, to take measures to protect nonsmokers from secondhand smoke and to increase the cost of tobacco products.
The World Health Organization Framework Convention on Tobacco Control was negotiated in Geneva over three years, and often pitted tobacco control advocates against international tobacco companies. Both sides got some of what they wanted -- an initiative against cigarette smuggling for the tobacco companies and the control efforts for the public health advocates.
Although the United States signed the treaty last May, indicating its general acceptance, the Bush administration has not sent it to the Senate for ratification. White House spokeswoman Dana Perino said the treaty is undergoing legal review at the State Department.
According to the World Health Organization, tobacco is responsible for about 5 million premature deaths each year. The goal of the new treaty is to bring down that number significantly by imposing worldwide many of the restrictions already in effect in the United States.
American tobacco control advocates criticized the Bush administration for the slow pace of the ratification process. Saying that the United States is on the "sidelines," Judith Wilkenfeld of the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids said that America's presence is needed as tobacco companies challenge the implementation of the pact.
"Too often in the past, our government has sided with the tobacco companies when they challenged other nation's tobacco control measures as violations of trade agreements," she said in a statement. "U.S. ratification of the treaty would send a strong message to the rest of the world that we will not support these efforts and instead put protection of public health ahead of tobacco industry interests."
Health and Human Services spokesman Bill Pierce said Friday that although the United States has not ratified the treaty, as a signatory it has been involved in setting up the rules and structure for implementing the treaty. Now that the treaty has gone into effect, however, the United States cannot be a voting member of its governing board unless it ratifies the treaty.
The treaty is the second major international effort to go into effect this month without formal American participation. The Kyoto treaty on global warming went into effect two weeks ago without U.S. approval.
Some of the world's largest tobacco growers have approved the treaty, including India, Japan, Pakistan, Thailand and Turkey. Cigarette producers including Britain, Germany, the Netherlands and Turkey have also ratified the measure.
Because of U.S. opposition to a blanket advertising ban, the treaty allows nations with commercial free speech protections to opt out of that provision. Nonetheless, there is continuing opposition to the treaty among some U.S. tobacco companies and lawmakers. The Senate needs a two-thirds majority to approve an international treaty.
Even without American ratification, tobacco control advocates say the treaty will be important.
"This treaty will save millions of lives," said Kathryn Mulvey, executive director of Corporate Accountability International. "It demonstrates that working together, the nations of the world can protect people from irresponsible and dangerous corporate practices."
Although 168 nations have signed the treaty, it will apply only in the 57 countries that have ratified it. It will go into effect in other nations as they formally approve it. Governments in those countries will have three to five years to change their laws to reflect the treaty's mandates.