Geneva, May 18 (Reuters): The US said today it would fully support a global anti-smoking treaty at this week’s world health meeting, startling observers by dropping its objections to the pact.
“I’m going to support it — much to the surprise of many around the world,” US health secretary Tommy Thompson told journalists on the eve of the World Health Organisation’s (WHO) annual assembly.
Despite having some of the world’s toughest anti-smoking rules, the US, along with Germany, had opposed a clause to ban advertising saying it went against constitutional guarantees to free speech. In what appeared to be an about-turn on the Framework Convention on Tobacco Control, the world’s first international treaty on health, Thompson said he would not call for alterations to the text.
“I’m not going to make any changes. We have no reservations. The delegation here, headed by me, is in support of the tobacco treaty,” he said.
Health activists said they were thrilled by the US change of heart on tobacco. “It’s an astonishing departure from the obstructionist position the US has taken throughout the negotiations,” said Kathryn Mulvey, executive director of US anti-smoking alliance Infact.
However, Thompson stopped short of saying the US would ratify the pact, which aims to wean the world off a habit that kills almost five million people a year.
President George W. Bush, bogged down with other issues such as Iraq and getting the economy back on track, had not yet had a chance to review the text with his lawyers, he said.
“The President is going to make a determination as to if and when he signs it. He’s still reviewing it. It got up on his personal radar screen this past week, I’ve given him my pitch and he was quite supportive,” he said. The treaty seeks to tackle the consequences of tobacco use with measures ranging from a halt in advertising to a crackdown on smuggling and a ban on cigarette sales to minors.
The UN health agency predicts the number of people dying each year from cancer, cardiovascular disease and other conditions linked to smoking could exceed 10 million by 2020, with 70 per cent of the victims in the developing world.
WHO officials are confident that the convention, the world’s first public health treaty, will be formally adopted by the World Health Assembly.
The historic treaty — aimed at reducing cancer and chronic heart disease — would halt tobacco advertising and sponsorship within five years, require large health warnings on cigarette packets and crack down on smuggling. If adopted, it would be opened for signature on June 16 and come into force after 40 countries have ratified it.