Inaction on Tobacco Treaty Threatens U.S. Influence

Tamara Smith helps Joan Haskell with a cigarette purchase at a store in Selma, N.C. The treaty calls for reducing tobacco consumption.
Tamara Smith helps Joan Haskell with a cigarette purchase at a store in Selma, N.C. The treaty calls for reducing tobacco consumption. (By Gerry Broome -- Associated Press)
By Marc Kaufman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, July 6, 2005

More than 13 months ago, the United States signed an international tobacco treaty designed to tighten control of cigarette advertising and consumption worldwide, and President Bush said he wanted the Senate to ratify it.

But the treaty -- already in effect in 70 nations from Britain to India to Mexico -- today remains unratified and little discussed in the United States.

It was May 2004 when then-Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy G. Thompson signed the treaty for the United States and said, "I'm hopeful we can get this treaty to pass on a bipartisan basis -- this year." It then disappeared into the State Department and so far has not reappeared.

"The treaty is still under interagency review," State Department spokesman Edgar Vasquez said, adding that it is unclear when the review will be completed. "No decision has been made."

The treaty, negotiated in Geneva over three years, calls for reducing tobacco consumption through various measures, including substantially increasing the size of safety warnings on packaging, strictly limiting cigarette advertising, and moving toward smoke-free workplaces and public areas. It also works to reduce cigarette smuggling -- a priority for tobacco companies.

The Bush administration has been slow to act on six other treaties that it has signed but not sent to the Senate for ratification, but inaction on the tobacco treaty poses unique problems.

Long the world leader in tobacco control, the United States now runs the risk of being a spectator when ratified treaty members meet early next year to establish a permanent operating structure and to set priorities for action. If the United States is not a voting treaty member, public health officials say, American views on issues including cigarette advertising, smuggling and secondhand smoke will inevitably be less persuasive.

The organizational meeting will be convened by the World Health Organization and will begin to implement the principles and directives of the Framework Convention on Tobacco Control. All 168 signatories will be able to attend, but only nations that have ratified the treaty will be able to vote. To qualify as a voting member, the United States would have to ratify the treaty by late October or early November, WHO officials said.

"Those who have not ratified can participate as observers, but they'll have no vote and it's unclear how much of a voice," said Heather Selin, tobacco control adviser for WHO's Americas office in Washington. "This will be an important meeting and will get the treaty machinery to start rolling."

Public health advocates report that even without the United States, the invigorated tobacco-control movement has been surprisingly effective in motivating governments to implement potentially lifesaving initiatives.

The use of tobacco by smoking or chewing is the second-leading cause of preventable death worldwide -- after high blood pressure -- and kills almost 5 million people a year, WHO estimates.

The Bush administration has not publicly voiced concerns about the treaty, but neither has it shown any enthusiasm since it was signed.

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