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Latin American WHO Delegates Meet on Tobacco Control - 2001-11-05

Latin American health officials and specialists are meeting in Brazil to discuss ways to curb the consumption of tobacco in their nations. The Rio de Janeiro meeting is part of a process to negotiate an international treaty on tobacco control.

This is the first meeting of Latin American delegates to discuss the proposed Framework Convention on Tobacco Control, which is being negotiated by 191 nations under the auspices of the World Health Organization, or WHO.

The governing body of the WHO, the World Health Assembly, approved the start of the multi-lateral negotiations in May of 1999. Since then, there have been several conferences to negotiate the Tobacco Control Convention. The WHO hopes member states will approve the treaty in 2003.

The aim of the proposed treaty is to curb the use of tobacco, which the WHO estimates kills 4.2 million people a year. Tobacco use is responsible for a range of deadly ailments including lung cancer and heart disease.

Some of the treaty proposals being discussed include establishing controls on advertising, protecting children and youth from tobacco exposure, and promoting tobacco free environments.

One of the participants at the Rio meeting, Heather Selin of the Pan American Health Organization, says banning tobacco advertising seems to have the support of many nations.

"One area where I think countries probably hope to get a common position is in the area of tobacco promotion, whether that will be possible I don't know," she said. "But it's an area that people feel strongly about. There was language proposed by Argentina in the last round of negotiations that countries work toward the elimination of tobacco promotion within the boundaries of their constitutions."

In Latin America, Brazil is among the leaders in imposing stringent restrictions on tobacco advertising, and forcing tobacco companies to include health warnings on cigarette packages. These warnings, begun in 1988, are now much stronger and more direct, with labels calling nicotine a drug that causes dependence.

Ms. Selin of the Pan American Health Organization says Brazil's anti-tobacco policies can serve as an example for the rest of the region. "I think this is very important to have countries that set precedents, especially in places where people say: 'it can't be done here, we're different',"' she said. "I think that Brazil has shown over the last ten years that changes can be made and that progress can happen quite quickly where there's political will to do so."

Tobacco use in the Americas varies widely. In countries like Chile and Argentina, smoking is widespread, whereas in Central America levels are lower. The United States and Canada are the only two countries in the hemisphere where there has been a steady decline in tobacco consumption.

The Latin American delegates meeting in Rio de Janeiro this week hope to agree on common positions for curbing tobacco use to include in the next round of negotiations. The meeting ends on Thursday, two weeks before a third round of multi-lateral negotiations on the tobacco control treaty are scheduled to be opened in Geneva on November 22.