Wed, May 21, 2003 - Page 7 News List

WHO treaty worries tobacco makers

SECRET WAR Corporate documents show how hard cigarette makers tried to scuttle the Framework Convention on Tobacco Control or make it virtually useless


he 192-nation World Health Organization (WHO) is expected to adopt a tobacco control treaty today at its annual assembly here.

The treaty, the Framework Convention on Tobacco Control, has moved forward despite the lobbying efforts of major tobacco companies. If approved, it will have to go to the individual countries for ratification.

The US has dropped its opposition and will vote for the agreement, Secretary of Health and Human Services Tommy Thompson said here on Sunday.

While no one will ever know the full extent of the maneuvering that was carried out by major tobacco companies to try to shape or deflect the treaty, company documents offer a window into one company's efforts.

British American Tobacco, the world's second-largest cigarette maker, tried for several years to create an image for itself as a socially responsible company to strengthen its hand in lobbying against the treaty, the documents indicate.

To reduce the public health toll from tobacco, the treaty obliges the countries that ratify it to adopt measures that the industry has strongly opposed, including bans on advertising tobacco products, requirements that all ingredients be listed on packaging and broader legal liability for manufacturers. The countries also must consider imposing higher taxes on tobacco.

The health organization estimates that 4.9 million people die each year of tobacco-related ailments, and that the figure will double in 20 years.

Tobacco is British American Tobacco's only product, and the start of the health organization's anti-tobacco initiative in 1999 jolted the company's managers into action.

Company memos, e-mail messages, letters and invoices indicate that the company, known as BAT, sought a reputation for social responsibility as a means of minimizing the initiative's harm to its business.

The documents, covering the period from 1998 through 2001, were made available to the WHO under a settlement that five tobacco companies reached with the State of Minnesota in 1998.

Copies were provided by Dr. Derek Yach, the organization's executive director for noncommunicable diseases, who objects to the company's efforts to influence the treaty. Yach said the documents showed a pattern of cynicism by the tobacco industry.

"We had a public hearing where BAT, Philip Morris and a range of companies stood up here and said they commit themselves to transparency, to honesty, to accountability," Yach said. "I think these documents paint a much darker side."

Dave Betteridge, a spokesman for British American Tobacco, rejected Yach's characterization. "There was nothing underhanded, nothing wrong with having our views heard," Betteridge said by telephone from London. "WHO shouldn't be surprised. It's simply lobbying."

The documents show a significant effort by the company to enhance its reputation, including hiring a consultant, KPMG, specifically to advise it on a corporate responsibility program. In October 1999 the tobacco company's manager for international development, Shabanji Opukah, wrote a memo to colleagues saying the health organization's tobacco initiative was "the best opportunity to take forward the big agenda on corporate reputation management."

Starting in 1999, according to the documents, the company began supporting projects in developing countries like the Kerio Trade Winds Project in Kenya, which is meant to develop growing tobacco as a way to alleviate rural poverty. The tobacco company made donations to research universities, including ?3.8 million -- about US$6.2 million at current exchange rates -- to the University of Nottingham in England and about US$30,000 to the University of Ghana.

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