- The Washington Times - Sunday, May 18, 2003

GENEVA — Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy G. Thompson stunned global health advocates yesterday by announcing that the United States was dropping its objections to a global anti-tobacco treaty and would support the pact.

“I’m going to support it. Much to the surprise of many around the world, I’m going to be supporting the tobacco treaty,” Mr. Thompson told reporters attending ministerial meetings of the World Health Organization this week.

The announcement represented an about-face for the administration, which said in March it could not accept several key provisions of the draft accord related to packaging, labeling, advertising and sales, among other things.

Formally called the Framework Convention on Tobacco Control, the world’s first treaty on health seeks to tackle the consequences of tobacco use with measures ranging from a halt in advertising to a crackdown on smuggling and a ban on cigarette sales to minors.

The United States, along with Germany, had opposed a clause to ban advertising, saying it would violate constitutional guarantees to free speech.

Asked whether he would push for any changes to the pact, Mr. Thompson said, “No, we’re not going to seek any changes or any reservations.”

President Bush also backed it, he said. “It got up on his personal radar screen in the past week, and I had to get my pitch. He was quite supportive.”

Mr. Thompson, however, would not say if the United States would ratify the pact.

Top diplomats and anti-tobacco campaigners were quick to laud the shift in the administration’s position.

“That’s very good. I’m very pleased with the declaration by Mr. Thompson,” said Felipe Seixas Correa, the Brazilian chairman of the WHO-sponsored talks on the tobacco treaty.

“As one of the world’s advanced countries in tobacco control, the U.S. would be an essential part of the structure of this convention,” the Brazilian official said.

Patti Lynn, spokeswoman for the Boston-based antismoking advocacy group Infact, described the administration’s announcement as “an astonishing departure from the obstructionist role it has played in these talks.”

Private organizations “and the entire world, will be watching to see that the U.S. follows through on this commitment,” she said.

The WHO estimates the number of smokers worldwide at more than 1.3 billion and projects that the number of smoking-related deaths will reach about 10 million a year by the early 2020s unless measures are taken to curb the use of tobacco.

Officials said the draft accord, which was reached March 1 by 171 countries, is expected to be discussed by health ministers during their annual WHO assembly tomorrow and come up for adoption Wednesday.

Diplomats and health experts said the reversal was driven in part by the failure of the United States to garner diplomatic support for its proposed changes in the language and by pressure from influential members of Congress not to scuttle the pact.

Turning to other health matters before the assembly, Mr. Thompson said leading issues will include how to deal with the severe acute respiratory syndrome, or SARS, and how to develop closer cooperation on similar outbreaks in the future.

On the request by SARS-affected Taiwan for observer status in the WHO, which has long been blocked by its archrival, China, Mr. Thompson said the U.S. position “is one of support.”

“Taiwan has a problem, and observer status would help to control and prevent [the spread of SARS.] It’s important. But at the same time we recognize the People’s Republic of China as China,” Mr. Thompson said.

Senior Asian diplomats said China has the numbers to defeat the motion.

Mr. Thompson, who is slated to meet tomorrow in Brussels with European Commission President Romano Prodi and other top officials, said he will encourage Europeans to be “more forthcoming” as contributors to the Global Fund, which collects resources to combat HIV/AIDS, tuberculosis and malaria in needy countries.

Mr. Thompson, who is also chairman of the fund’s board, said the United States has provided about 37 percent of funding to date.

This article is based in part on wire service reports.

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