MANILA — When they take their seats at the World Health Organization’s tobacco-control meeting in Geneva, Switzerland, this week, delegates should keep a keen eye out for unsavory tactics by the tobacco industry. On Wednesday, attendees presented two draft rules: One requiring those wishing to participate in future meetings to declare potential conflicts of interest, and the other to monitor tobacco industry operations.
The meeting, referred to as the eighth session of the Conference of the Parties, takes place biennially and is aimed at advancing the implementation of the WHO Framework Convention on Tobacco Control. The internationally agreed treaty requires parties to adopt a series of evidence-based tobacco control measures, such as regulating the industry’s marketing activities and sales reach, in the name of public health. There are currently 181 parties to the convention.
But as at previous conferences, the meetings have been plagued by concerns of industry presence. The industry has been reported to exert different tactics to enter the conference venue using public badges, sometimes by borrowing them from official delegations to the meetings. They can also meet with delegates offsite to lobby their position. Philip Morris International currently is hosting events talking about a “smoke-free future” in a Geneva hotel near the conference venue.
These repeated attempts by the industry have forced parties to the convention to close their sessions from the public, even barring the media from attending. They’ve done this in previous COPs, and had to enforce the same restriction this week. They’ve also decided to limit webcast sessions to the opening and potentially closing plenaries in this year’s meeting.
“The parties prefer not to have industry circulating around the hallways during the discussion, or listening in the discussions,” said Stella Bialous, professor at the University of California San Francisco, and COP8 spokesperson.
During the opening plenary, a representative from Kenya recalled how industry interference in 2012 forced their delegation to retreat from making any more interventions.
Members of the tobacco industry in Kenya sent a letter to the then permanent secretary of Kenya’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs to contact its representatives at the 2012 conference and “instruct” them to “desist and refrain” from taking positions on taxation that deviated from what the industry said were agreed upon previously by different Kenyan ministries.
The representative from Afghanistan, meanwhile, said that as the industry appears to be “everywhere,” there appears to be no choice but to ban all participants wearing public badges from the meetings.
One of the draft proposals in this week’s session calls for party delegations and observers to submit declarations of interest forms in an attempt to weed out those who have affiliations with the industry. A proposal on the issue was also put before member states during their last conference in 2016 in New Delhi, India, but they didn’t reach consensus and decided to further discuss it at COP8.
Yet the proposal before delegations today has a loophole: All parties, except for NGOs, are asked to submit the form on a voluntary basis.
Asked about the weight of the proposal’s impact in preventing industry from attending the sessions, Bialous thinks it’s still helpful.
“I think everything helps. I think more transparency about interests, about representation, about who is here, that helps,” she told Devex.
“We [have] got to respect the sovereign rights of each country and each party to make those decisions,” she said. “Usually decisions by the convention are by consensus, so in a way voluntary is easier to agree on than a nonvoluntary, I think.”
But some member states wanted more teeth in the declaration.
Sources privy to the discussions told Devex of a proposal by some member states requiring delegations to submit declarations of interest. Another proposal by a different group of member states asks parties to establish programs that would serve as monitoring centers for tobacco industry operations among other measures, similar to those already in operation in Brazil, South Africa, and Sri Lanka.
The second proposal was in response to what anti-tobacco advocates describe as “evolving industry tactics to undermine health,” such as the creation of the Foundation for a Smoke-Free World. Funded by Philip Morris International, it claims that it operates independently from PMI and “cannot engage in activities designed to support PMI’s interests.”
Countries see the proposals as a means to uphold Article 5.3 of the treaty, which calls on parties to protect public health policies, particularly those relating to tobacco control, from industry influence.
“Closing this loophole is bringing the treaty in line with the guidelines that already exist. What’s more, parties are calling for further protections, like declarations of interest, because they’ve seen that when there are tobacco industry representatives on delegations, it hamstrings their ability to do what’s right for public health and what’s needed to save lives,” said Michél Legendre, associate campaign director at nonprofit Corporate Accountability.
Article 4.9 of the treaty tells parties not to nominate “any person employed by the tobacco industry or any entity working to further its interests to serve on delegations to meetings of the Conference of the Parties, its subsidiary bodies or any other bodies established pursuant to decisions of the Conference of the Parties.”
“The tobacco industry is constantly evolving new strategies to block, weaken, and delay the life-saving measures of this treaty,” said Taylor Billings, press officer for Corporate Accountability.
“As one party said today referring to PMI’s new foundation, we are entering a new era of deception from the tobacco industry.”
For more coverage of NCDs, visit the Taking the Pulse series here.