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March 27, 2019

Panel discussion at the Global Forum on Human Rights and a Tobacco-Free World

The following remarks were made during a panel discussion on Tobacco Control and the Human Rights Agenda at the 
Global Forum on Human Rights and a Tobacco-Free World in Bucharest, Romania.

I have a few remarks to make today about where I think we can make some progress over the next year on tobacco and human rights. There are some things happening at the UN level that are important. And there are some developments with tobacco industry interference that we must continue to fight through our advocacy.

It was a year ago this month, at the last World Conference on Tobacco or Health, when the “Cape Town Declaration on Human Rights and a Tobacco-free World” was endorsed.

In the spirit of that declaration, I’m pleased that we’re here together, focusing on how we can apply human rights mechanisms to advance the Framework Convention.

I think it’s worth emphasizing one of most important messages within that declaration: That the “the manufacture, marketing and sale of tobacco are incompatible with the human right to health.”

This forum shows that we have much more recognition than ever before of the human rights dimensions of tobacco control, and that we are eager to apply a human rights framework to tobacco control.

We all have the right to achieve the highest attainable standard of physical and mental health. And when it comes to protecting that right, there might be no other area of public policy as important as tobacco control.

For tens of millions of people around the world, who have become addicted to tobacco products by using those products as intended, the tobacco industry remains one of the main obstacles to pursuing their right to health.

Progress at the UN

At the UN level, it’s important that the UN Human Rights Council supports implementation of the Framework Convention.

I would like to see the UN Human Rights Council adopt a resolution on tobacco control. This would provide a valuable tool for advocates to influence public policy at the national level.

Among other things, it would create a closer working relationship between the Human Rights Council and the Convention Secretariat.

It would help us to embed support for the FCTC within national human rights plans. And it would help us clarify, for policymakers, exactly where tobacco control and human rights intersect.

It’s encouraging that the “UN intergovernmental working group on transnational corporations and other business enterprises with respect for human rights,” which is part of the Human Rights Council, is paying close attention to the FCTC.

Their mandate is to advance an internationally binding instrument to regulate the activities of transnational corporations and business enterprises within human rights law. And the FCTC Secretariat is actively participating in those negotiations.

Industry developments and interference

The regulation of the tobacco industry is so important. The industry has always used rhetoric intended to confuse and mislead governments and the public. But now they’re speaking the language of public health, even while we know their goal is to weaken the implementation of the Framework Convention.

The Foundation for a Smoke-Free World was founded with an enormous investment from Philip Morris. And now the foundation is trying to secure a seat at the table with public health policymakers around the world.

Even what they’re telling the public about their business strategy appears misleading. They say they’re going to phase out the sale of traditional cigarettes. When they announced this, we saw the headlines. They said PMI is “giving up cigarettes.”

They even ran full page ads in newspapers on New Years in 2018, saying “we’re trying to give up cigarettes.” Not “we are giving up cigarettes.” But we’re TRYING.

That was more than a year ago, and PMI has not announced a timeline for stopping its sale of cigarettes. accountable for phasing out the commercial sale of traditional cigarettes.

I would like to see the human rights and tobacco control communities hold the industry accountable for setting a deadline for ending their sale of cigarettes. Or if they won’t set a deadline, perhaps it’s up to us to set a deadline and campaign around it together.

Because even though they’re saying they’re getting out of the cigarette business, the company is still making new investments in its capacity to produce cigarettes.

In January, for example, it was reported that PMI was in negotiations to buy a large stake in Mastermind Tobacco, Kenya’s second-largest cigarette producer. And last year, PMI opened a new cigarette factory in Tanzania, which was inaugurated by the country’s president.

And while they’re making these investments, Altria, its parent company, also recently acquired a 35-percent stake in Juul, the electronic cigarette maker. So even though PMI has said their strategy is to stop selling cigarettes, it looks like their objective is to maximize the sale and profit from all tobacco products… from cigarettes, from heated tobacco products, and from e-cigarettes… all at the expense of people’s right to health.

This makes it all the more urgent that we get a human rights decision at COP9. We were close to getting one at the last COP and fell short. I hope we’re successful this time.

Thinking beyond FCTC minimum standards

Thinking more about the big picture and where we stand with regard to implementation of the Framework Convention… Governments are legally bound to implement the Framework Convention, and that is the minimum we should expect them to do. The treaty encourages States Parties to implement measures beyond those required by the Convention and its protocols.

In advocacy in general, you almost always get less than what you ask for. If you ask for the minimum of what you want, you’re probably going to get even less. So you have to ask for more.

So if our goal, at minimum, is to see the Framework Convention fully implemented, then as our starting point, maybe we need to nudge governments to go beyond the minimum standards set in the Framework Convention.

I also think there are some new approaches we can be taking. One thing we can do is raise a lot more visibility around the commercial determinants of health.

The social determinants of health is a widely accepted framework for looking at health trends and for develop solutions. But the commercial determinants of health, as a frame, isn’t nearly as widely recognized. Even though this is also a very important way of looking at health. And it’s actually becoming more and more relevant as we see NCDs rise.

Jeff Collin, the professor of global health policy at the University of Edinburgh, and others have been making the argument that the SDGs do not do enough to address the commercial determinants of health. So we need to develop approaches for addressing the commercial determinants of health.

And one way we can do this is to use these two frames together—the commercial determinants frame, and the human rights frame. We can point to the commercial determinants of health, and we can show where commercial determinants are at odds with human rights.

There is so much progress to be made by putting human rights at the center of our work, and by becoming true partners with human rights advocates.

I’m hopeful that this forum is the start of something new and important for tobacco control, and for the millions of people whose right to health continues to be attacked by the tobacco industry.

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