A New Front – and a New Ally – in the Tobacco Wars

Submitted by: Human Rights and Tobacco Control Network, Action on Smoking and Health (US) and Unfairtobacco

The 17th World Conference on Tobacco or Health concluded in South Africa on March 9th by adopting the Cape Town Declaration on Human Rights and a Tobacco-Free World. The Declaration, proposed by the Human Rights and Tobacco Control Network, Action on Smoking and Health (US), and Unfairtobacco, advances the connection between human rights norms and the tobacco epidemic, and calls on governments to go much further in reducing smoking based on their obligations under human rights accords. Over 100 organisations have thus far endorsed the Declaration. The World Conference on Tobacco or Health has met every three years since 1967, and about 2500 public professionals participated this year.

Human rights played a central role in the vision for the WHO Framework Convention on Tobacco Control, and the connection is enshrined in the chapeau:

Recalling Article 12 of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, adopted by the United Nations General Assembly on 16 December 1966, which states that it is the right of everyone to the enjoyment of the highest attainable standard of physical and mental health (http://www.who.int/tobacco/framework/text/final/en/).

In 2017 the Danish Institute for Human Rights, a quasi-governmental organisation that entered into and later agreed to end a collaboration with Philip Morris International, came to an obvious yet startling conclusion:

“…there can be no doubt that the production and marketing of tobacco is irreconcilable with the human right to health. For the tobacco industry, the UNGPs [UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights] therefore require the cessation of the production and marketing of tobacco.”

For many involved in public health, DIHR’s statement was a call to action. In September 2017, 123 organizations signed a “cease and desist” letter to Philip Morris International. PMI’s response was predictable, making it clear that PMI’s commitment to a “smoke-free future” is more a public relations campaign than a genuine commitment.

The Cape Town Declaration is not an end but a beginning. Our goal is lofty but straightforward – to include tobacco control under existing human rights obligations. This will give tobacco control advocates another lever to pull, and add a seat to the table on the side of public health when tobacco regulations are being considered at the local, national and global levels.

To be clear, we do not aim to create new rights under the global human rights framework. As DIHR stated, existing human rights norms are already implicated. Like many other aspects of society, human rights theory has “grown up” during the rise of the smoking epidemic, and has been blinded to its devastating toll. As the purveyor of products that addict and kill when used as intended, the tobacco industry has been given preferential treatment for decades. Human rights law gives us another avenue to address tobacco according to the harms it causes.

Corresponding author: Megan Arendt arendtm@ash.org


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