• September 28, 2020 11:17 am

Fire and smoke

BySwati Dey

Dec 22, 2016

UN-WHO wants to squeeze tobacco industry globally; non-State actors hope to undermine such policies

In November 2016, the Framework Convention Alliance (FCA), a network of 500 global organisations in 100 nations, met with health officials and politicians across the world. The seventh Conference of the Parties, or COP7 as it is called, felt sure that it would convince the member nations to come down heavily on the world’s tobacco industry in a bid to severely curtail consumption, impose huge taxes, ban tobacco marketing, and prevent any links between governments and the industry.

Almost seven weeks later, the FCA has failed to finalise its Delhi Declaration document. Sources contend that there are a few knots that need to be tied. One of them is to provide a roadmap on how to provide alternative jobs to the tobacco farmers, whose livelihoods will be endangered. However, the overwhelming consensus among the FCA is that its initiative and efforts were disrupted, even “infiltration and manipulation” of the working of COP7, by vested lobbies, which included the industry and its front organisations.

According to Yvona Tous, policy advisor, FCA, “The industry has gone on the offensive. It is conducting an international campaign to attack and discredit the COP. Industry representatives have written angry letters to both the COP and WHO (World Health Organisation, which finalised the framework for the restrictions, bans and curbs)…. Since the tobacco industry has no credibility to criticise the COP and tobacco control, it has recruited front groups, think tanks and sympathetic individuals to sing from its song sheet.”

The head of the convention secretariat, Vera Luiza da Costa e Silva, hinted at the infiltration within the COP7. “Despite all the hard work by the Parties it is sad to see the (vested) interest, yet again, being promoted in the room. It is determined to undermine and distract us from our goal – to fight against the tobacco epidemic that not only damages health and kills people, but also impoverishes those living in low- to middle-income countries,” she explained.

Patriot accessed portions of the COP7’s Delhi Declaration, which were finalised. According to them, the conference reiterates that there is a need

  • To counter any efforts by the industry and other non-State actors that work to further the interests of the tobacco industry to subvert and undermine government policies
  • To support… effective implementation of the Protocol to Eliminate Illicit Trade
  • To promote alternative livelihoods to tobacco growers and workers.

The industry questions the basis of WHO’s Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (FCTC), which was adopted in 2003, and was ratified by 180 nations. First, it contends that the tobacco-growing nations, like Indonesia, Malawi, the US, Argentina, Cuba and Mozambique, “are not party to the treaty”. Second, India, which was the eighth nation to ratify FCTC in 2004, shouldn’t be swayed by “propaganda of the international NGOs”, and India had a “comprehensive tobacco control law”. Finally, one has to take into account the socio-economic benefits and livelihood that accrue from the tobacco industry.

One of the most critical Articles of FCTC is 5.3, which denied any access for “consultation and interaction” between the industry and policy makers. In fact, it includes the non-health State actors in the latter category. No ministry or department, or state agency should seek any funds or sponsorship from the tobacco industry. This has irked the latter, which feels it is “undemocratic”. A paper, WHO FCTC Proposals: A threat to the livelihood of tobacco farmers in India, prepared by the Tobacco Institute of India (TII) and circulated before COP7, felt that the “measure would set a precedent for legislatively preventing the legal industry and other stakeholders from voicing their concern…”

FCTC suggested that governments should impose “excessively high taxes” on legal tobacco products to reduce consumption. The industry says that such moves will “further fuel growth of illegal trade”, and cigarettes were already “burdened with high and discriminatory taxation in India.” The FCA and COP7 realised the first concern. This was why in its Delhi Declaration it encouraged “parties to take requisite steps” to curb the illicit trade.

At the end of the day, the most vociferous debate is about the fate of the tobacco farmers, traders and other workers, who are likely to lose their jobs. The Delhi Declaration said that the signatory nations have to promote and implement “policy options and recommendations on economically sustainable alternatives to tobacco growing.” At the COP5 meeting in 2012, it was decided that the “optimal alternative crop for tobacco farmers should have the following characteristics: comparatively higher gross income, low investments, short cycle from planting to harvest, well-established infrastructure (e.g. warehouse), and existence of a ready market.”

According to the TII, “so far there is no viable alternative to tobacco crop”, which is a cash crop. In addition, crop substitution “will require a planned and systematic approach.” TII adds that tobacco substitution “will severely impact India’s tobacco export performance and the livelihood of millions of farmers, farm workers and their families.” Finally, any Indian policies shouldn’t benefit other tobacco-growing nations “at the cost of Indian farmers”.

Just before COP7, and during it, hundreds of the Capital’s auto rickshaws carried large advertisements on this issue of livelihoods. They showed a tobacco farmer, and tobacco trader lamenting about their future, and asking God to save them from the vested interests of the international NGOs. Obviously, these ads were sponsored by the industry or its fronts.

Despite this tussle between FCA and industry, India is serious about the curbs on tobacco. During COP7, there were media reports that the union cabinet may ban foreign direct investment (FDI) in the tobacco sector.

At present, FDI is “permitted in technology collaboration in any form, including licensing for franchise, trademark, brand name and management contracts…. However, it is prohibited in manufacturing of cigars, cigarettes of tobacco and tobacco substitutes.” Sources say that India is also working out the details of the alternatives that can be given to the tobacco growers and workers.