The Ninth Session of the Conference of the Parties (COP) to the World Health Organization’s Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (WHO FCTC), otherwise known as COP9, took place from Nov. 8-13, 2021. The WHO FCTC, which is the only global public health treaty, is critical to accelerating efforts to end the global tobacco epidemic. The WHO FCTC came into force with 168 signatories in February 2005. Negotiated under the auspices of WHO, countries that signed the treaty committed to implementing tobacco control measures to protect public health and the environment while staying alert to the tobacco industry’s attempts to disrupt these measures.
Today, there are 182 countries who are Party to the WHO FCTC. Every two years, these countries are brought together in a conference that offers a forum for Parties and civil society delegates to debate how best to implement WHO FCTC articles, to discuss emerging issues, and to identify research and technical assistance needs. This year, for the first time, Vital Strategies was formally approved as an accredited civil society observer to COP. Here are our takeaways from COP9 this year:
Accelerated agenda and deferred discussions
COP9 was originally supposed to be held in 2020 but was delayed to 2021 and held virtually due to COVID-19, which presented both advantages and challenges. Notably, the virtual format enabled the highest level of participation in the history of the event, with 161 Parties present. On the other hand, working across time zones and on a virtual platform made participation difficult for some Parties. The virtual format for COP9 also necessitated a shorter agenda, with several issues deferred to COP10 when they can be discussed more fully in person. This included deferring discussion on the regulation and disclosure of content in tobacco products, including waterpipes, smokeless tobacco and heated tobacco products (Articles 9 and 10 of the FCTC). Discussion on novel and emerging tobacco products was also delayed until the next COP. Delegates did note the expert reports providing guidance on these topics that were prepared for COP9. Some expressed concern that deferring decisions to COP10 would help the tobacco industry grow sales of harmful products, while others voiced that the science isn’t yet rigorous enough to come to a consensus and called for further research.
Awards: Orchid and Dirty Ashtray
A major player at every COP is the Framework Convention Alliance, which supports the development, ratification and implementation of the WHO FCTC. The Framework Convention Alliance, with nearly 300 member organizations (including Vital Strategies), serves as the leading civil society advocacy and monitoring group of the WHO FCTC. During COP9, the Alliance monitors the contributions and behavior of Parties and awards the daily “Dirty Ashtray” and “Orchid” to those whose participation most undermines or strengthens the implementation of the WHO FCTC and the progress of the COP. Throughout the week, the Orchid Award went to Parties who helped progress COP9 work by sticking to the agenda, as well as passing a well-prepared budget and supporting the inclusion of civil society. Iran was recognized for proposing the COP9 “Declaration on WHO FCTC and recovery from COVID-19.”
The Framework Convention Alliance and its members pay particularly close attention to any behavior related to WHO FCTC, Article 5.3, which is focused on protecting public health against the “commercial or other vested interests” of the tobacco industry. During COP9, some delegations used delaying tactics to interrupt progress or present pro-tobacco industry messages, including talking about tobacco as a positive force economically while not addressing the economic or societal costs, including those associated with illness and death caused by tobacco use. “Winners” of the “Dirty Ashtray” Award for this kind of behavior included Guatemala, the Philippines, Honduras, Nicaragua and El Salvador. Some media outlets also noted industry-friendly interventions from delegates throughout the week. The Philippines’ Department of Health issued a statement disassociating itself from comments made by the Philippines delegation at COP9 that aligned with pro-tobacco industry stances.
Notable decisions from COP9
- An agreement was reached to establish a new sustainable funding mechanism to help support implementation of the WHO FCTC, which is important for the financial stability and sustainability of tobacco control work globally. Funding for delegates from low- and middle-income countries to travel in-person to COP10 was also approved to ensure their ability to participate in future COPs.
- An overall Declaration on WHO FCTC and recovery from COVID-19 was accepted. The Declaration calls on Parties to reject industry interference, address the impact of COVID-19 and accelerate implementation of the treaty.
- For the first time, accredited media were able to attend the open sessions of COP9. This enhanced the overall transparency of the proceedings.
It’s too early to say what is on the agenda for COP10 but we do know that the next meeting will be hosted by the Panamanian government. We hope to see parties and advocates in-person in Panama in 2023.
Notable reports from Vital Strategies
- “Selling Death on Social Media: How Bidis Are Reaching Consumers Online” reveals India’s bidi industry is exploiting rapid growth in the use of social media to market and sell products online. Companies are almost exclusively using Facebook to do so (98%), with 337 instances of bidi marketing observed on the platform during the data collection period. The report analyzed data collected from Vital’s Tobacco Enforcement and Reporting Movement (TERM,) a digital media monitoring system that tracks online tobacco marketing and the types of messages the industry uses to market its products.
- STOP, a tobacco industry watchdog that Vital Strategies is a partner in, released the 2021 Global Tobacco Industry Interference Index, which analyzes how well or how poorly governments in 80 countries are protecting policies from the tobacco industry’s meddling. The three countries that ranked the poorest this year were the Dominican Republic, Switzerland and Japan. STOP also launched a complementary campaign to amplify the index, reinforcing that governments have the power to protect life-saving policies by preventing tobacco industry meddling.
Other important reports released during COP9:
- Vital Strategies’ partner through the Bloomberg Initiative to Reduce Tobacco Use, the Institute for Health Research and Policy at the University of Illinois at Chicago, released the “Tobacconomics Cigarette Tax Scorecard” that assesses and compares cigarette tax policies globally.
- The seventh (2021) edition of the Canadian Cancer Society’s “Cigarette Package Health Warnings: International Status Report” details global progress in implementing pack warnings.
- The World Health Organization released the “WHO global report on trends in prevalence of tobacco use 2000-2025, fourth edition,” which shows that tobacco use is declining globally. However, there are still more than a billion tobacco users around the world and WHO called on governments to step up their tobacco control efforts.