- The Washington Times - Tuesday, May 20, 2003

GENEVA (AP) — The World Health Organization gave its preliminary approval yesterday to a treaty that would severely curtail tobacco advertising around the world and try to keep companies from marketing tobacco products to teenagers.

Ministers at the WHO meeting said the treaty could save millions of lives.

“What we are doing today will be written in bold letters in world history,” Mauritian Health Minister Ashok Jugnauth told WHO’s policy-making assembly. “Generations to come will not only thank us, but a lot of them will owe their lives to us.”

The treaty bans or restricts tobacco advertising, introduces more prominent health warnings and controls the uses of terms like “low-tar” on cigarette packs. It provides for tougher international measures against secondhand smoke and cigarette smuggling, and espouses manufacturer liability.

The treaty particularly intends to stop hard-sell tactics aimed at adolescents and strip tobacco of images it is glamorous and cool.

The treaty was approved unanimously by the health assembly’s main committee and will go to the full World Health Assembly meeting today, where approval is considered a formality. The treaty takes effect after 40 countries have ratified it.

The biggest threat to the treaty was from the United States, which wanted a clause allowing countries to opt out of individual provisions.

But U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy G. Thompson said Sunday the United States had dropped its reservations and promised to back the treaty. Mr. Thompson stressed the treaty still needs to be signed by President Bush and ratified by Congress.

The scale of the support was evident at yesterday’s meeting, with top health officials from nearly 50 countries praising the agreement — the first public health treaty ever drafted by the WHO. The European Union, Japan and China were among those announcing they would sign.

“It is a historic watershed,” South African Health Minister Manto Tshabalala-Msimang said. “It has the potential quite simply of saving over 10 million lives per year. It would be impossible to overstate the significance of this, especially for developing countries.”

Developing countries have led the push for the treaty, saying they need protection from tobacco multinationals that have switched their focus from saturated Western markets to Asia and Africa.

Health officials say nearly 5 million people die every year from tobacco-related illnesses and that number is expected to climb to 10 million a year over the next two decades.

The WHO estimates that 70 percent of those deaths will be in developing countries.

“Representatives of our organizations around the world see firsthand the tragedy of the tobacco epidemic,” said Rob Cunningham of the International Union against Cancer.

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