Ex-Clinton official rips White House on tobacco treaty
He says U.N. draft has been 'watered down'
since he quit as U.S. delegation chairman

Sabin Russell, San Francisco Chronicle

Thursday, February 13, 2003

As delegates prepare for a final round of talks in Geneva to produce an international treaty on tobacco control, the former chief of the United States delegation said Wednesday that the current draft is "too weak," and lays the blame on a lack of leadership by the Bush administration.

Dr. Thomas Novotny, a former assistant surgeon general during the Clinton administration, told reporters in San Francisco that the proposed Framework Convention on Tobacco Control has been "watered down" since he quit his post as chairman of the U.S. delegation in May 2001.

"The U.S. should have been in a greater leadership position on this treaty. We bear some responsibility for the dissemination of tobacco use around the world," he said.

A final draft of the proposed treaty will be hammered out during a 12-day meeting beginning Monday. The draft will then be presented to the World Health Assembly, an arm of the United Nations, and if approved will be distributed to participating countries for ratification.

But Novotny said the current draft does not call for any "significant action" that could lead to an international ban on advertising tobacco products.

In the United States, tobacco advertising has been banned from television and billboards under a landmark 1998 court settlement between states and the tobacco industry. However, print advertising is still permitted.

The current draft treaty also does not call for action to prevent exposure to passive smoke -- such as California's ban on smoking in the workplace, including bars and restaurants. And it permits sale of brands labeled "low- tar" or "light," which critics contend implies these cigarettes are healthier than other brands.

"There has been very little leadership on tobacco control from this administration," said Novotny, who said he resigned when it became clear "there was no role" for him. "The scientific information on nicotine addiction has not changed, but HHS (Department of Health and Human Services) leadership has," he added.

Mark Berlind, legislative counsel for Altria Group -- the newly named holding company for tobacco giant Philip Morris -- said it believes the treaty could be strengthened, although not necessarily in the way anti-smoking advocates would demand.

"We'd like to see a worldwide ban in advertisements directed toward minors, " he said. "We don't want to see a total ban on responsible tobacco ads directed toward adults."

Berlind said that from the company's perspective, "there hasn't been any difference" in how two different U.S. administrations have handled the talks. He said that because of First Amendment concerns, the U.S. did not support a total ban on cigarette advertising under the Clinton administration, either.

"The Bush administration has been as disinclined as the Clinton administration to beef up the treaty in ways we think are important," Berlind said.

Anti-smoking advocates said it is vital for global health for the tobacco treaty to be strengthened. "If the treaty happens to conflict with trade agreements worldwide, public health concerns should supersede trade agreements, " said Liz Gimson, California campaign coordinator for the organization Infact, which promotes tough, worldwide anti-tobacco legislation.

Gimson said 4.9 million people around the globe die each year from tobacco- related illnesses, and that the number is expected to grow to 10 million annual by 2030. "Seventy percent of these will occur in poor countries," she said. "There is a desperate need for a strong treaty that will prevent this epidemic from taking place."

E-mail Sabin Russell at [email protected]