American U-Turn on World Tobacco Control Pact

20 May 2003

“Much to the surprise of many around the world, I'm going to be supporting the tobacco treaty,” US secretary of health and human services Tommy G Thompson told the world’s press in Geneva on Monday. He was referring to the so-called Framework Convention on Tobacco Control sponsored by the World Health Organization.

This startling U-turn was announced in advance of the WHO’s annual meeting of health ministers from its 192 member states. It reverses an ultimatum delivered on April 28 when US ambassador Kevin Moley told WHO director general Gro Brundtland that although the US supported the initiative in general it could not adopt it as written because of the treaty’s ‘no-reservations’ clause.

The clause prevents individual nations from disregarding any provisions they find unacceptable and the US asked that all 192 WHO member nations send their representatives back to the negotiating table.

There were three specific provisions to which Washington would not commit: (1) setting minimum sizes on warning labels; (2) prohibiting the free [sample] distribution of cigarettes; and (3) defining what constitutes an advertisement, which could violate the First Amendment.

Why the apparent shift in the US position? Secretary Thompson got coy: “Someday I will tell you,” he whispered shyly to the press throng.

According to Thompson, the US will not seek any changes and will vote for the treaty tomorrow (Wednesday). “I’m not going to make any changes, no reservations … Our delegation here, headed by me, is in support of the tobacco treaty.”

However, some see this apparent concession as cosmetic. Although Thompson reiterated President Bush’s support for the treaty, the administration is on record as saying it will not ratify it as currently drafted.

And by way of casual afterthought, Thompson tossed in a key rider: the president wants the final treaty to be reviewed by lawyers.

And then?

“The president is going to make the determination as to if and when he signs it.”

Data sourced from: New York Times; additional content by WARC staff