U.S. retreat extinguishes tough global-smoking limits

OpEd - USA Today

Wed Feb 12, 2003

In recent weeks, New York City, Boston and DeKalb County, Ga., have adopted smoking bans, the latest signs of a growing nationwide movement to protect the public from secondhand smoke. The restrictions come on top of tobacco-tax hikes that 20 states have approved in the past year to discourage smoking while raising revenue.

But what's good for the health of the American public apparently isn't good for the rest of the world.

At least, that is the impression left by the Bush administration's retreat from strong anti-smoking provisions in a tobacco treaty health officials from around the world hope to wrap up in talks starting Monday in Geneva. The accord, sponsored by the World Health Organization, would commit countries to measures aimed at reducing the enormous health problems caused by tobacco, particularly in developing nations.

Though smoking kills 4 million people a year worldwide, a U.S. delegation is trying to water down treaty provisions requiring smoke-free zones and curbs on tobacco marketing. Barring last-minute changes, those actions could end up undercutting the most promising efforts to slow spreading cigarette use and the illnesses it causes.

The administration's resistance to regulating tobacco use abroad mirrors its weak support for anti smoking efforts at home, where a powerful industry has blocked attempts to regulate tobacco as a drug. That's why states and cities have taken the lead.

Many countries, however, are reluctant to take similar action on their own. At a time when cigarette companies are aggressively expanding overseas, developing nations lack the political clout to adopt anti-tobacco restrictions without the legal
mandate of a strong international treaty.

As recently as 2000, the U.S. was on board. But in 2001, the chief U.S. negotiator at the time, Thomas Novotny, was told by a top Health and Human Services (HHS) Department official that the U.S. would no longer back several key provisions, Novotny says. And the U.S., which distributes billions in foreign aid each year, has gotten its way.

Where the U.S. backpedaled:

* Smoke-free zones. The U.S. had supported specific bans on smoking in bars, restaurants, government agencies, day care centers and schools. Now, after U.S. objections, all mention of smoke-free zones, even in schools, has been replaced by a promise to promote unspecified measures to protect against secondhand smoke.

* Marketing curbs. The treaty originally called for banning misleading terms, such as ''low-tar'' or ''light,'' that suggest some cigarettes are less harmful. Such a ban takes effect in the European Union this year. But that provision has been weakened with the blessing of the U.S., even though the National Cancer Institute warns that low-tar and light brands do not reduce the risk of lung cancer or other smoking-related illnesses.

A spokesman for HHS won't explain the altered positions. He insists the U.S. is seeking a treaty that curbs youth smoking and that ''everybody can live with and sign.''

But a weak treaty everyone signs won't provide the help many nations need to fend off the industry's marketing muscle.

Local governments in the USA are combating smoking with tough tactics. Washington would do better to encourage similar moves overseas instead of fighting them.