Adriana Blanco Marquizo
United Nations bodies already offer the tools to remove industry obstacles from the path of a liveable climate and improved public health. The global community must use them.
For decades, the vehicle industry produced vehicle fuel with lead additives. The decision by carmakers and refiners to use lead helped vehicles achieve greater power and was patented by its producers. It also poisoned human beings.
This was not a surprise. As early as the Roman era there were suspicions that lead damaged human health, and — more immediately — workers at the plants producing tetraethyl lead in the 1920s were reporting extreme medical maladies. Some died.
Yet, science is always playing catch-up, just as a lie sprints around the world while the truth is still lacing its shoes. Science, careful and meticulous, must find a way even when industry deploys its resources to hamper change and distort the truth. Although there was sufficient evidence to strongly suspect a link between lead exposure and ill-health, it took time to provide the scientific proof, meaning it was the 1970s before action really got underway. Only in 2021, following a 19-year campaign led by the UN Environment Programme (UNEP) and partners, was the United Nations finally able to help bring about a global ban on leaded petrol.
The story of leaded fuel helps explain the enormous barriers to banning harmful products, even when the evidence is incontrovertible, and when governments could reasonably apply the precautionary principle to justify legislation. This is why tobacco products remain on sale despite the irrefutable scientific knowledge that they kill as many as half their users — more than eight million a year, every year.
The tobacco industry is a stubborn foe. The world recognised this almost two decades ago, when in 2005 — after decades of trying to rein in the industry using other mechanisms — the WHO Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (WHO FCTC) entered into force. Embedded in the Convention, as one of the international obligations reflecting the global resolve to address the tobacco epidemic, was Article 5.3, which acknowledged the need to protect public health policy from commercial and economic interests.
Article 5.3 is just 35 words long, but along with the Guidelines for its implementation adopted by the governing body of the WHO FCTC, it is central to the Convention: it recognises the damage done by an industry indifferent to public health goals, and eager to prioritize its profits over policies to reduce the demand for, and supply of, its harmful products. This provision has been critical in many countries to ensuring appropriate safeguards are in place to protect the integrity of public health policies from interference by industry and thus achieve effective implementation of the Convention.
The evidence gathered by the Secretariat of the WHO FCTC and its 182 Parties, as well as by tobacco control stakeholders around the world, is clear — the tobacco industry continues to interfere in almost every conceivable way in its efforts to confound the aims of the Convention and to sidestep Article 5.3.
This provision is not a cure-all; the industry is well-financed and willing to ruthlessly pursue its economic self-interest. But it is equally the case that, without Article 5.3, implementation of the global public health treaty would have been much less effective. If policy deliberations were subjected to the full might of the tobacco industry, it is likely that far fewer countries would have managed to advance life-saving tobacco control policies. The existence of Article 5.3 at the heart of the Convention provides a meaningful way for stakeholders to safeguard the creation of public health policy and to support Parties to the WHO FCTC to fulfil their commitments.
There are important lessons to apply from the Convention when addressing industry interference in climate policy. Indeed, the WHO FCTC Secretariat is open to sharing its experience, although of course, not all conventions should follow an identical path.
But there are certainly important parallels. The United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) and the WHO FCTC both request their Parties to take actions to protect future generations, one protecting the climate system, the other by reducing continually and substantially the prevalence of tobacco use and exposure to tobacco smoke.
Another link is that during its entire life cycle from cultivation to consumer waste, tobacco has a negative impact on the environment. It uses and destroys soil that could be used for cultivating food crops, and it contributes to deforestation, desertification, and greenhouse emissions. Cigarette butts — which many people do not realize are made of plastic — are a major pollutant on coastlines and in seas, with more than 4.5 trillion butts estimated to be discarded annually.
The world faces multiple emergencies, something referred to as “a polycrisis” in the Financial Times recently, and the fossil fuel and tobacco industries – among others – are part of the problem. There is also a nexus between the environment, health policy and global human rights.
This point was highlighted by United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres at the opening of the General Assembly session in September 2022, when he described humanity’s “suicidal war against nature”.
He demanded that fossil fuel producers be held to account and pointed to their multi-billion-dollar business with its huge public relations machine.
“Just as they did for the tobacco industry decades before, lobbyists and spin doctors have spewed harmful misinformation,” he said, and added, “Polluters must pay.”
Genuine corporate liability is key to a better world, and it’s wholly reasonable to require businesses to behave ethically. They must not twist the science, distort the facts, misrepresent the risks or divert attention from their misbehaviour with “social responsibility” or “sustainability” schemes, a ‘new’ term that industry has appropriated.
All UN treaty organisations must be aware that while big business is often desperate for a place at the decision-making table, it is not there to help humanity, but to protect profits. If we want a cleaner and healthier world where humanity can thrive, special measures to protect the integrity of public policy are critical.
Dr Adriana Blanco Marquizo, is Head of the Secretariat of the WHO Framework Convention on Tobacco Control.