The World Health Organization (WHO) yesterday adopted a sweeping anti-tobacco treaty in an attempt to regulate a product which kills one in two of its regular users.
Crowning four years of tense negotiations, WHO's policy-making annual assembly adopted the accord without a vote amid thunderous applause. The UN health agency's director-general, Gro Harlem Brundtland, described it as "historic."
"What a wonderful moment in global public health," a jubilant New Zealand Health Minister Annette King said, adding that around 20 million people had died from tobacco-related diseases since the talks began.
The treaty provides for a general ban on tobacco advertising and promotion -- or restrictions in countries like the US where a total prohibition would violate the constitutional guarantees of free speech.
It says that health warnings -- including pictures of diseased gums and lungs -- should ideally take up at least half the packet, and encourages governments to control terms like "low-tar" and "mild" on cigarette packs.
The treaty also provides for tougher international measures against second-hand smoke and cigarette smuggling, and espouses manufacturer liability.
The treaty is particularly intended to stop hard-sell tactics aimed at adolescents and to strip tobacco of the image it is glamorous and cool.
The treaty will take effect after 40 countries have ratified it.
Much work now lies ahead in trying to put the terms of the convention into practice, especially in developing countries which have only weak domestic legislation and are expected to account for 70 percent of the forecast 10 million annual tobacco-related deaths by 2030.
"It is not the happy end of the story but rather the beginning of a new challenge for WHO," said Japan's chief delegate Yoshio Kimura. His country -- which has a controlling stake in Japan Tobacco International -- held out against tough provisions until the closing stages of the talks.
In a speech which was music to the ears of health campaigners, US Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy Thompson told the assembly that the US supported the accord without changes or reservations.
For months, anti-smoking activists had accused the US -- home to the world's biggest exporter, Philip Morris -- of trying to undermine the treaty. The text was agreed upon on March 1 despite US objections that it did not allow countries to opt out of individual clauses -- a procedure known as taking reservations.
The US last month wrote to the other 191 members of WHO saying this undermined its ability to sign and ratify the convention, and asking in vain for support to reopen the negotiations and delete the advertising ban.
Thompson's about-face in announcing support for the treaty in its existing format stunned powerful Democratic critics of US President George W. Bush's administration -- and the rest of the world.
Developing countries have been at the fore in pushing for the convention, saying they need protection from tobacco multinationals who have switched their sales drives from already saturated western markets to Asia and Africa.