Holding The Tobacco Industry Liable

Despite overwhelming credible and scientifically robust evidence that tobacco kills and is a common risk factor for major non-communicable diseases, public health program have been unable to make significant headway in cutting tobacco use, particularly in the third world.

With more than 6 million tobacco-related deaths every year, the world is far from eliminating the scourge. Indonesia, for instance, has never cracked down on the production of kretek, a lucrative money spinner for the government. China’s effort at tobacco control are contradictory at best, given that the tobacco industry is a state monopoly and the country’s largest tobacco producer at the same time the State Tobacco Monopoly Administration is the industry regulator with the responsibility to control smoking.

Every tobacco-related death is a tragedy, because it is preventable, said US Surgeon General Vivek Murthy at the opening of the 16th World Conference on Tobacco and Health.

"One of the major obstacles in implementation of the World Health Organization Framework Convention on Tobacco Control is tobacco industry interference and the ability of the industry to intimidate and harass governments" said Matthew Allen, 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.

Conflict of Interest

One major game-changer in tobacco control has been the adoption of World Health Organization guidelines in November 2008 by countries that have ratified the global tobacco treaty. The guidelines have been hugely successful in putting the spotlight on fundamental and irreconcilable conflict of interest between the tobacco industry and public health policy, thereby denying them seat on the table in tobacco control. But there is more in in the guidelines that can further turn the tide of the global tobacco epidemic.

The guidelines envision 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.

The guidelines, said Cloe Franko, chairwoman of Network of Accountability of Tobacco Transnationals, are “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." Franko is also Senior International Organizer of Challenge Big Tobacco campaign at Corporate Accountability International.

"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 favor." Franko said.

Not surprisingly, progress in moving towards implementation of the guidelines has been slow. At the recently held inter-governmental meeting of the global tobacco treaty, a decision was made to extend the mandate of the expert group on the guidelines. When the seventh round of inter-governmental negotiations of the WHO Framework Convention on Tobacco Control takes place in 2016, the 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.

In addition to the report, Franko said, the group will also more seek to provide strong and concrete guiding principles that will enable governments to advance implementation of the guidelines.

Yul Francisco Dorado, Latin-America Director, Corporate Accountability International, called for governments to ensure that the guidelines remain central to 7th intergovernmental meeting of the global tobacco treaty in 2016. "We cannot delay full utilization,” he said.

"It can be intimidating for governments to consider litigating against the tobacco industry,” Franko said in an interview. “That is why the guiding principles and tools 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 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."

Shobha Shukla is the Managing Editor of Citizen News Service (CNS). Follow her on Twitter: @shobha1shukla