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Hold tobacco industry liable: Turn the cost-benefit ratio upside down

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Shobha Shukla, Citizen News Service (CNS)

(CNS): Despite loads of credible and scientifically robust evidence that tobacco kills and is a common risk factor for major non-communicable diseases (NCDs), public-health programmes have achieved limited success in controlling tobacco epidemic. With over 6 million tobacco-related deaths every year, the world is far from eliminating tobacco deaths. Every tobacco-related death is a tragedy, because it is preventable, had rightly said US Surgeon General Vivek Murthy at the opening of the 16th World Conference on Tobacco or Health (WCTOH 2015).

"One of the major obstacles in implementation of the World Health Organization Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (WHO FCTC) is tobacco-industry interference and how it intimidates and harasses governments," said Matthew Allen, who is the lead author of Article 5.3 Toolkit: Guidance for Governments on Preventing Tobacco Industry Interference," of the International Union Against Tuberculosis and Lung Disease (The Union).

Conflict of interest

One major game-changer in tobacco control has been the adoption of WHO FCTC Article 5.3 guidelines in November 2008 by countries that have ratified the global tobacco treaty. FCTC Article 5.3 hugely succeeded in putting the spotlight on fundamental and irreconcilable conflict of interest between tobacco industry and public-health policy, thereby denying them seat on the table in tobacco control.

But there is more in WHO FCTC that can further turn the tide of the global tobacco epidemic!

Holding tobacco companies liable

WHO FCTC Article 19 envisions a world where governments hold the power to protect people from harmful products like tobacco, can recover the costs of treating tobacco-related disease from the tobacco industry, and can use their legal systems to ensure their right to do so.

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"FCTC Article 19 is one of the least well-implemented articles of the treaty. As a result it provides immense untapped potential to be able to shift the cost-benefit ratio for the way the tobacco industry operates and thereby hold it to account and make it pay the high costs of harms it causes to people around the world," said Cloe Franko, Chair of Network for Accountability of Tobacco Transnationals (NATT) and Senior International Organizer of Challenge Big Tobacco campaign at Corporate Accountability International.

Franko added: "Right now the tobacco industry uses its political and economic might to overpower the legal systems in, especially, smaller countries of the global South in a way that shifts the balance in its favour."

Not surprisingly, progress in moving towards implementation of FCTC Article 19 has been slow. At the recently held inter-governmental meeting of the global tobacco treaty (WHO FCTC COP6), a decision was made to extend the mandate of the expert group on FCTC Article 19. When seventh round of inter-governmental negotiations of WHO FCTC will take place in 2016, this expert group will share a final report on approaches that may assist governments to strengthen civil-liability mechanisms for holding tobacco industry accountable across a variety of legal systems.

Cloe Franko informed that in addition to the report, expert group of WHO FCTC Article 19 will also more importantly provide strong and concrete guiding principles that will enable governments to advance implementation of Article 19.

Yul Francisco Dorado, Latin-America Director, Corporate Accountability International, called for governments to ensure that WHO FCTC Article 19 remains central to 7th intergovernmental meeting of the global tobacco treaty in 2016: "We cannot delay full utilization of FCTC Article 19," said Yul in a session at WCTOH 2015.

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It only takes one candle to light the darkness

Franko shared with Citizen News Service (CNS): "It can be intimidating for governments to consider litigating against the tobacco industry. That is why guiding principles and tools on Article 19 become all the more important for governments. Adjusting laws and legal systems, and sharing knowledge and expertise at the international level will help to ensure that the legal process against tobacco industry is not so overwhelming and costly. Recent progress litigating against the industry in Canada, though important, may be difficult to be followed by low- and middle-income countries. The Article 19 expert group has a key role to play ensuring support is available for countries to bring the tobacco industry to account for the harms it causes." As they often say in Abu Dhabi to reflect hope, "Insha Allah"!

Shobha Shukla, CNS

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Citizen News Service (CNS) specializes in in-depth and rights-based, health and science journalism. For more information, please contact: www.citizen-news.org or @cns_health or www.facebook.com/cns.page

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