Human rights experts hear from the Head of the Convention Secretariat

Human rights experts meeting at the Palais des Nations in Geneva heard how the global tobacco control treaty is increasingly relevant to advances in public health and human rights.

The United Nations Human Rights Council’s Second Session of the Open-ended Intergovernmental Working Group (OEIGWG) on transnational corporations (TNCs) and other business enterprises with respect to human rights heard from Dr Vera Luiza da Costa e Silva, Head of the Convention Secretariat, to the WHO Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (WHO FCTC).

Her Excellency, Ambassador María Fernanda Espinosa, Permanent Representative of Ecuador to the United Nations and President of the OEIGWG invited the Head of the Convention Secretariat to address the meeting.

Dr Vera Luiza da Costa e Silva began her presentation by explaining that the WHO FCTC is closely involved in the protection of human rights against the influence of major transnational corporations like the tobacco industry. This is an increasingly important area and offers significant opportunities to advance the interests of human health while focusing on those corporations and enterprises with business models that place profits before the public interest. She said, “The WHO FCTC is the public health treaty that inspires and informs the UN to work on global tobacco control and entered into force 11 years ago. It has been extensively adopted by the world community and now has 180 Parties, all of whom have pledged to implement its provisions.”

Tobacco is one of the first products traded around the world and over time grew into a powerful industry. It has since been able to exploit tens of millions of addicts, to bribe decision-makers, to traduce high-quality academic research and to assert that the consumption of its noxious goods is a manifestation of individual freedom.

Tobacco kills about six million people a year, but even so the industry has a strategy aimed at selling even more of its products to new markets in low- and middle-income countries, where tobacco control legislation tends to be weaker. This will inevitably increase the death toll and illness associated with tobacco use.

Dr Vera Luiza da Costa e Silva cautioned the expert group, “Don’t expect an industry, which profits from human misery to be your friend. Make sure it’s kept at arm’s length.” Referring to experience from the tobacco control field she noted that for decades decision-makers relied on the tobacco industry to help with research and policy-making. However, once tobacco industry documents were made public the dishonesty of many tobacco executives became clear. To counter tobacco industry interference, the WHO FCTC addresses the matter in several ways, particularly under Article 5.3 which states,

“In setting and implementing their public health policies with respect to tobacco control, Parties shall act to protect these policies from commercial and other vested interests of the tobacco industry in accordance with national law.”

The basis of the WHO FCTC is to assert the individual’s right to protection from powerful organizations which, left unchallenged, will knowingly cause harm. The importance of human rights is foundational to the WHO FCTC. In its Preamble, it refers to the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights; the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women; and the Convention on the Rights of the Child.

Parties to the WHO FCTC acknowledge the individual’s right to the highest attainable standard of health and links this tothe tobacco epidemic. This right requires Parties to develop national health strategies and plans of action, especially for vulnerable or marginalized groups.

Because human rights is an important element of the Convention, it provides ways of addressing child labour in tobacco farming or the poorly regulated sale of tobacco products to people in low-income countries. These issues should be considered when regulating the behaviour of businesses and their impact on human rights.

The UN’s Sustainable Development Goals acknowledges human rights as a key starting point and includes a commitment to strengthen implementation of the WHO FCTC. The Addis Ababa Agenda for Action recommended tobacco taxation as a means of financing development, which recognises that transnational corporations are held financially accountable.

Turning to the tobacco industry’s attempt to dress-up promotional and branding strategies as an exercise in freedom of expression, Dr Vera Luiza da Costa e Silva, drew parallels to the alcohol and processed foods industries. Their adoption of human rights terminology, supporting the right for individual choice while poisoning customers was wrong. “This is both ludicrous and dangerous, and must be challenged. Governments have a duty to foster the public good and to act against speech that is harmful. Nowhere is there a right to smoke, but everywhere there is a right to life,” said Dr Vera Luiza da Costa e Silva.

The tobacco industry is also attempting to use investment arbitration cases to challenge tobacco control decisions in jurisdictions as varied as Uruguay and Australia. In both cases, the fact that the WHO FCTC was cited and upheld demonstrates the significance of international legally binding instruments to safeguard human rights.

Dr Vera Luiza da Costa e Silva suggested the intergovernmental working group to consider cleansing the public policy arena of corporations whose actions or products threaten human rights. And she recommended that they demand that corporations make public any information relating to public health and banning misleading packaging and advertising.

The objective of the WHO FCTC, as with other international treaties, is to make liable the industries that promote products that may harm their consumers and the complete removal of products which kill and which have no place in the lives of the world’s citizens.

Concluding her presentation Dr Vera Luiza da Costa e Silva said, “Reinforce this simple message – human rights never gives commercial entities the freedom to mislead, injure or kill their consumers.”