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COP8: Checkmating tobacco industry infiltration dominates debate as treaty talks begin in Geneva

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Dr, Nnenna Ezeigwe, National Coordinator, Non-Communicable Diseases (NCDs) of the Federal Ministry of Health and Mr. Babatunde Irukera, Director-General of the Consumer Protection Council (CPC) at a plenary session at the COP meeting on the FCTC in Geneva, Switzerland

Nigeria and 180 other countries meeting in Geneva, Switzerland for the Eighth Conference of the Parties (COP8) of the World Health Organisation Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (WHO-FCTC) have expressed worry about tobacco industry influencing the talks.

At the conference which began today (October 1) and runs through 6 October, calls for live-streaming of the discussions to supposedly guarantee transparency met stiff resistance from countries that felt such a move will backfire and instead open the talks to interference of tobacco industry which the tobacco industry has been linked with in the past had plagued previous talks.

The African bloc stood firmly in support of live-streaming on the condition that it is only the opening and closing plenaries while the technical deliberations remain closed to avoid pressure from the tobacco industry, which had in the past slowed or caused stalemates in talks.

A member of the Nigerian delegation, Dr. Nnenna Ezeigwe, Director/National Coordinator, Non-Communicable Diseases (NCDs) of the Federal Ministry of Health, said that like other African countries, Nigeria supported only live-streaming of the opening and closing deliberations but keeping the technical sessions insulated.

Initially, Canada introduced a weak decision that called for webcasting all sections and relaying them after a negligible three-minute delay, But, after Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania, Zimbabwe and the other African countries spoke during the deliberations and stood firmly behind the stronger African bloc’s position, all the Parties — including Canada — supported the stronger position.

Among a host of issues, this week Parties will advance a provision that prohibits the tobacco industry from exploiting public badges, which are primarily used by tobacco industry representatives to delay, block and weaken the treaty.

In the past year, in advance of COP8, the tobacco industry has escalated its attempts to re-normalize the deadly industry: doubling down on promoting heat-not-burn products and launching a billion dollar foundation in hopes of regaining lost footing in policymaking spaces. This year, governments will also advance policies to eliminate illicit trade.

The policy to kick the tobacco industry out stems from a broader treaty directive called Article 5.3 that prevents industry interference in the halls of government. Internal industry documents show that when the tobacco industry successfully gains access to the talks by attending on public badges, they obtain confidential information, lobby government delegates, and attempt to water down public health policy.

“The number one barrier to fully implementing this life-saving treaty is industry interference,” said Michéel Legendre, associate campaign director with Corporate Accountability. “With Big Tobacco on the defensive, and governments poised to give it the boot, the outcomes of this year’s Conference of the Parties will mark a turning point for public health.”

The policy decision to truly eliminate the industry from the halls of negotiation will have resounding implications for policy-making spaces in other arenas, like the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change, where industry interference inside of the negotiating spaces has been a significant barrier to real success.

“We support consensus on insulating the talks from Big Tobacco promoted by the African bloc today. We anticipate that similar bonding will shut out Big Tobacco which has exploited the Public Badges policy to swarm the talks with their foot soldiers”, said Akinbode Oluwafemi, deputy executive director of Environmental Rights Action/Friends of the Earth Nigeria (ERA/FoEN).

The global tobacco treaty, known formally as the World Health Organization Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (FCTC), entered into force in 2005. To date, 181 countries and the European Union have become Parties to the treaty. It contains the world’s most effective tobacco control and corporate accountability measures—estimated to save more than 200 million lives by 2050 when fully implemented.

Other key developments/issues of focus at the Eighth Conference of the Parties to the Framework Convention on Tobacco Control:

·        Philip Morris International-funded Foundation for a Smoke-Free World which is expected to lobby heavily in support of the industry at this year’s negotiations.

·         Discussion on regulating E-cigarettes.

·         Strengthening of FCTC Article 19 which will facilitate access to justice for victims of smoking-related disease; Healthcare cost recovery; and Enforcing existing tobacco control measures or general laws relevant to tobacco, including injunctive relief.

Director-General of the WHO, Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyeseus, said the treaty talks has witnessed progress in previous years which the ongoing talks will build upon.

Ghebreyeseus expressed worry about low and middle income countries that bear the brunt of the tobacco burden in terms of healthcare costs and deaths.

He urged Parties to do more in three critical areas: Increase tobacco taxes to save lives and raise revenue, initiate comprehensive ban on tobacco advertising promotion and sponsorships, and commit to universal health coverage for citizens.

The global civil society movement is urging delegates to remain firm in the face of mounting tobacco industry attempts to derail the talks and influence outcomes.