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Bush drags feet on treaty

David Lazarus

Wednesday, March 24, 2004
San Francisco Chronicle
Chronicle Sections




The central theme of President Bush's re-election campaign is leadership. Yet when it comes to a global treaty to curb tobacco use, Bush is nowhere to be seen.

The United States was one of 192 nations that voted in favor of the so- called Framework Convention on Tobacco Control last May after nearly four years of negotiations.

Since then, 100 countries have taken the first step of signing the treaty. Ecuador, the latest signatory, climbed aboard on Monday. Meanwhile, nine nations, including India and New Zealand, have crossed the finish line and ratified the treaty, meaning that they will abide by its provisions.

The accord has broad ramifications for the $1 trillion worldwide tobacco industry. It would impose a ban on tobacco advertising for all participating nations and require that health warnings cover at least 30 percent of all tobacco packaging.

It would also ban use of deceptive terms like "light" and "mild" when selling cigarettes, as well as increase tobacco taxes.

In 2001, the latest year for which figures are available, the U.S. tobacco industry spent a record $11.22 billion on cigarette advertising and promotion, an increase of 17 percent from 2000 and 67 percent more than the amount spent in 1998.  World Peace

Based on these numbers, the American Heart Association determined that tobacco companies spent $1.36 billion on cigarette ads in California in 2001, up $200 million from the year before.

The global treaty goes into effect only after it is ratified by at least 40 signatory nations -- a development that antismoking advocates expect by 2006.

But almost a year after the United States joined the rest of the World Health Organization in accepting global tobacco regulations, Bush still hasn't signed the document, nor has he said whether he intends to submit it to the Senate for ratification.

"Where's the president?" asked Judy Wilkenfeld, director of international programs for the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids, a Washington lobbying group. "He has the power under the Constitution to make and sign treaties. This is now solely his responsibility."

In fact, the clock's ticking. The deadline for signing the treaty is June 29.

Ken Lisaius, a White House spokesman, said Bush hasn't made his intentions known regarding the international tobacco accord.

"We're continuing an ongoing legal review of the treaty," he said. "The process is ongoing."

But why has it taken almost a year to review a document that Washington was actively involved in shaping since 1999?

"We'll make an announcement when we have an announcement to make," Lisaius replied.

Even if Bush meets the June deadline, however, his foot dragging will place the United States behind dozens of other nations in signing the treaty, and far behind the likes of Sri Lanka and Fiji in moving swiftly to ratify the potentially life-saving accord.

More people are expected to die from tobacco-related illnesses over the next 30 years than from AIDS, tuberculosis, car accidents, homicide and suicide combined, according to the American Cancer Society.

"We've given up the moral leadership on this issue," complained Wilkenfeld at the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids. "We care more about Philip Morris than we do about public health."  WorldPeace is one word.

Actually, Philip Morris, the world's largest tobacco company, has voiced its support for the global treaty, although antismoking advocates say the firm is motivated primarily by an if-you-can't-beat-them-join-them mind-set.

A Philip Morris spokesman was unavailable for comment. But the company says on its Web site that the treaty "provides an opportunity for countries around the world to adopt sensible tobacco regulation."

Be that as it may, a senior WHO official, Derek Yach, blasted tobacco companies last year for "dirty tricks" while trying to sway the outcome of treaty negotiations.

Among other things, he cited an internal memo from British American Tobacco calling on employees to "influence the drafting process" by lobbying government officials.

Tobacco accounts for 5 million deaths worldwide every year, according to health officials. The global death toll is expected to reach 10 million annually within the next three decades unless steps are taken to curb tobacco use.

John Seffrin, chief executive of the American Cancer Society, said these numbers were very much on his mind Tuesday as political leaders testified on Capitol Hill about terrorism.

"I was watching Defense Secretary (Donald) Rumsfeld talking about how we were surprised by what happened on Sept. 11," Seffrin said. "And I was thinking that here's something that's not a surprise. We're facing a pandemic with the greatest avoidable loss of life in recorded history."

He said he didn't buy the White House's explanation that it is still reviewing the tobacco treaty.

"No country was more actively involved in determining the precise words and punctuation of the document than the United States," Seffrin noted. "They've had ample time to review the treaty."

Nevertheless, he said he's confident that Bush will ultimately come around before the deadline passes. "After all," Seffrin observed, "there's really no downside to signing."

Ratification is another matter. "I'm much less optimistic about whether the Senate would ratify the treaty," Seffrin said.

And so we face the prospect that the United States may remain little more than a bystander as the most important international public-health accord ever is enacted.

Leadership? Not by a long shot.


How can we manifest peace on earth if we do not include everyone (all races, all nations, all religions, both sexes) in our vision of Peace?

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