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The Astounding Impact of UN Treaties on Public Health

By: Laurent Huber, Executive Director of ASH

I have now spent over two decades working on UN treaties and international processes with the aim of ending the negative health, social and economic consequences of tobacco products, and I am often asked: why?  Why don’t you just concentrate at the local level where you live?

Working at the local level is indeed very important, and I do act locally every time I can, but many of the local successes in tobacco control were made possible by the global consensus and globally agreed upon directions for how to end the tobacco related epidemic.

ASH has been instrumental in the key global tobacco control advances: the negotiations, adoption, and entry into force of the global tobacco treaty, the WHO Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (FCTC). Since the FCTC has entered into force, countries meet every two years to hold tobacco treaty negotiations (officially called the Conference of the Parties or COP) which serve a purpose similar to Congress in the U.S. or a country’s parliament – COP is where global tobacco policy is written and monitored and where consensus is achieved on how to tackle the tobacco industry and how to advance health.

Government representatives, health officials, civil society, and academia from all over the world join together to agree on what needs to be done to tackle tobacco through evidence-based policies that are officially recorded during the treaty negotiations. After entering into force in 2005, the WHO tobacco treaty is now a legally binding treaty that has been joined by more than 180 countries and carries the weight of national law when ratified.

The negotiations of the tobacco treaty (FCTC) are what normalized smoke-free policies around the world, the banning of tobacco advertising, the introduction of plain packaging of tobacco products, and even the need to protect public health policies from tobacco industry interference.

When the FCTC was first adopted in 2003 not a single country was fully smoke-free, but today according to the recent 2023 WHO Report on the global tobacco epidemic, 74 countries have implemented comprehensive smoke-free policies.  This success championed by ASH appeared impossible in the early 2000s but is now a reality thanks to this global UN treaty process.

This November, the FCTC will hold its next round of negotiations during the 10th Conference of the Parties (COP 10) in Panama. At COP 10, countries will address very important topics, including introducing forward looking measures to end the tobacco epidemic, which fully aligns with ASH’s goal to phase out the commercial sale of tobacco products.

This year’s negotiations provide the public health community with an unmissable opportunity to move closer to truly ending the tobacco epidemic.

The last round of tobacco treaty negotiations fell in 2020 as the world grappled with the COVID-19 pandemic, so the negotiations were conducted remotely with limited debates on the most cutting-edge issues that require our attention. This year will be different as countries will be able to meet in person and address emerging and urgent tobacco control issues head on.

Unfortunately, tobacco companies are already making it clear that they will attend COP 10 and work to slow our progress. We know this because the tobacco industry has reserved large blocks of hotel rooms in Panama – making a loud statement that they will be present and working to undermine our public health work.

For this reason, it is critical that ASH and our public health allies are present and fully engaged to ensure that this November the global tobacco treaty adopts pro health policies rather than pro tobacco industry measures.

This November is an opportunity for all of us who value health to shape global health law that will help phase out harmful tobacco products, an opportunity we must not miss. This is a unique opportunity to ensure that our collective right to health takes precedent over the financial interests of the tobacco industry. If we miss this opportunity, it will be at the expense of future generations who will be hooked and harmed by tobacco products.

Help us protect your right to health and make COP 10 a success by making a donation today. The manipulative actions of the wealthy yet deadly tobacco industry will be no match for our community, with your support on our side.

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