A Treaty on Tobacco?

The American public may think that Clinton-era lawsuits reined in Big Tobacco. After all, settlements with the industry have resulted in $240 billion for state governments and a stream of ads about the hazards of cigarettes.

But the Marlboro Man and his compadres still ride roughshod over public-health policy around the world. In the past few months alone, the tobacco industry has made gains by airing child-friendly television commercials in Uruguay, reversing a ban on tobacco promotion in the United Arab Emirates only 10 days after its passage, and winning the appointment of a key ally to run the economy in Costa Rica.

In early May, however, a new round of international treaty negotiations in Geneva may result in heightened awareness about tobacco promotion around the world. A network of health-conscious organizations in 45 countries is calling for teeth in the tobacco treaty, which is known as the Framework Convention on Tobacco Control.

"It doesn't yet explicitly address the political influence of the tobacco industry," says Kathryn Mulvey, executive director of Infact, a U.S. group that recently released a report entitled "Power Politics" that detailed Philip Morris's global reach. She adds: "The provisions in the treaty are very weak, and they're very similar to what Philip Morris would want. It's absolutely essential to, at a minimum, make tobacco's political activities more transparent."

With setbacks in the United States, tobacco companies have focused on expanding their overseas markets. The current CEO of Philip Morris came out of the company's international division; and the board of directors includes globalist Rupert Murdoch and Carlos Slim Helu, the richest man in Latin America. A Philip Morris executive has become minister of economy, industry, and commerce in Costa Rica, and the mayor of a major Hungarian city serves on the board of a Philip Morris foundation there.

But anti-tobacco forces are going global as well. Groups from Bahrain to Bulgaria organized the International Weeks of Resistance to Tobacco Transnationals in April, in preparation for the May negotiations on the tobacco treaty. The treaty, which creates the first process for international tobacco regulation, could be ratified by the World Health Assembly as early as next year. Mulvey says the treaty, though lacking specifics, is "a floor, not a ceiling." The network of nonprofits will push for more forceful regulation in future negotiations.

Their multinational activism also provides a model for future coordination. "There's fertile ground for organizing groups that are committed to human rights, environmental protection, and health--groups where one wouldn't expect tobacco to be a paramount issue," says Mulvey. "We're hopeful that it will set a precedent for taking on other industries whose products or practices are endangering health and the environment."

Like treaty negotiations, this global organizing is likely to be slow going. But if successful, it might leave the Marlboro Man and the rest of his gang with less room to roam.