Every December 10th is Human Rights Day, and this year (2021) the theme is “Equality- Reducing inequalities, advancing human rights.” For ASH, this theme is very welcome, as we strive to center our tobacco control work around these principles.

This year in particular, ASH has been focused on the intersection of tobacco control with social justice, health equity, and human rights. These principles, while each unique, are all intertwined, and tobacco control is an important step to achieving these goals.

One example comes from our recent lawsuit against the FDA. ASH, along with our partners at the African American Tobacco Control Leadership Council, the American Medical Association, and the National Medical Association sued the FDA for their inaction on menthol cigarettes. As a result of this lawsuit and the Citizen’s Petition that preceded it, the FDA has promised to propose a rule banning menthol cigarettes.

This is not only a case about health, but about racial inequities and social justice as well. Nine out of 10 black people that smoke, smoke menthol cigarettes due to long term targeted advertising by the tobacco industry.

ASH has illustrated those connections in both the national and international systems. ASH and our partners at the DC Coalition drafted a submission to CERD (Convention on the Elimination of all forms of Racial Discrimination), asking the Committee to consider the problem of menthol cigarettes and the case against the FDA the next time the Committee reviews the United States’ record. This submission was signed by almost 100 other organizations, and illustrates how human rights can be utilized to support social justice movements.

While this is an important step towards achieving social justice and protecting human rights, human rights also give us a framework for what the next step should be for commercial tobacco. The Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights (often referred to as the Ruggie Principles after John Ruggie, a luminary in the field who passed away this year) boil down to three words: protect, respect, and remedy. A government is obligated to protect the human rights of its citizens, corporations should respect those rights, and if they don’t, there is a legal remedy.

In the case of Big Tobacco, the lack of respect for human rights is egregious. So egregious in fact, that the Danish Institute for Human Rights came to the conclusion that “Tobacco is deeply harmful to human health, and there can be no doubt that the production and marketing of tobacco is irreconcilable with the human right to health.”

Tobacco is antithetical to the principles of equality, justice, and human rights. Ending the tobacco epidemic would also bring the world closer to health equity, social justice, and full enjoyment of human rights. Read more about ASH and how you can join us in our mission here. Thank you for your support.