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Last Updated: Wednesday, 21 May, 2003, 20:15 GMT 21:15 UK
Landmark tobacco treaty triggers debate
By Ania Lichtarowicz
BBC World Service health correspondent

Almost five million people a year die from tobacco-related illnesses

The outgoing Director General of the World Health Organization (WHO), Gro Harlem Brundtland, has achieved her goal of making a major impact in tackling tobacco.

"I never gave up the conviction that it could be done," she said.

And it has - the world's first public health treaty.

After four years of negotiations, all 192 member states of the WHO adopted the Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (FCTC).

If ratified, it could bring about the end of tobacco advertising and increase taxation on cigarettes.

Health warnings on cigarette packaging could even show graphic pictures of diseased lungs.

High hopes

Non-governmental organisations (NGOs) and many charities are ecstatic about the new treaty.

Patricia Lynn, from the US-based NGO Infact - a group which challenges what they call corporate abuse - told the BBC they were extremely excited about the FCTC.

"I think the real heart of this treaty is the ban on advertising, promotion and sponsorship of tobacco," she said.

"We are very aware that tobacco advertising is what addicts kids and hooks them for life... this [treaty] will have a dramatic effect on youth addiction around the world."

Last year 4.9 million people died from tobacco-related illnesses

Director General of the World Health Organization (WHO) Gro Harlem Brundtland
Brundtland: a "historic" moment

The WHO estimates that if the measures set out by the FCTC are not adopted, by 2020 around 10 million people will be dying from smoking.

Ms Brundtland said the treaty would literally save lives worldwide.

"Today, we are acting to save billions of lives and protect people's health for generations to come," she said.

Little effect

But not everyone has welcomed the news.

The tobacco industry is upset it was not involved in the negotiations of the treaty.

Jeannie Cameron from British American Tobacco (BAT) said that some of the measures will have little effect on tobacco use.

"In a lot of developing countries cigarettes are not sold in packets, they're sold individually," she said.

"So is really putting very large health warnings on a packet of cigarettes the best way to get a health message across to those people when most of them may not see the packet."

She argued that time and money would be better spent on public health campaigns.

The tobacco industry has also warned that the FCTC will lead to other international health treaties, such as sugar and alcohol.

But Ms Brundtland is adamant that the treaty will have to be solidly in place before the WHO tackles other health issues this way.

Big players

But adopting this treaty is one thing, enforcing it is another.

Many doctors and NGOs are worried that the big players - such as the United States, Japan and Germany - will not ratify the FCTC.

Patricia Lynn said: "It's really quite unlikely under the Bush administration, given their ties to tobacco, that the US will actually ratify this treaty."

Once 40 countries sign up, the FCTC will come into force, but what impact it will have depends on who these nations are.

But it is, no doubt, a major step in tackling what the WHO calls the tobacco epidemic, and shows just how much attitudes to smoking have changed over the years.

The BBC's Jim Fish
"It was adopted unanimously with a standing ovation"

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