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UN Prepares Anti-Smoking Treaty

One of the key objectives of the World Health Organization, or WHO, is to curb tobacco smoking, which the U.N. agency says kills four million people every year. A convention on tobacco control currently underway would limit tobacco advertising, ban sales to minors and impose other regulations worldwide.

Delegates to a recent meeting in Geneva held preparatory talks to work out the text of a treaty the 191-nation body hopes to adopt in two years. A draft of the agreement that was the subject of the week-long talks would phase out tobacco industry sponsorship of sporting and cultural events and restrict advertising. It would lay down steps to fight cigarette smuggling and rules for greater accuracy on tobacco product labels, including clear health warnings. It would also prohibit tobacco sales to anyone under the age of 18.

Anti-smoking activists criticized the draft agreement as too weak, noting that it does not impose a total ban on tobacco advertising.

But Ambassador Celso Amorim, the Brazilian chairman of the Inter-governmental Negotiating Body, rejects the charge that he has produced a weak document. He says a treaty must be both meaningful and ratifiable; And any attempt to enforce a total ban on advertising would run up against constitutional obstacles in countries such as the United States or Brazil.

Mr. Amorim says he expects substantive negotiation to get underway at the third meeting in November, and insists that the treaty target date of May 2003 must be maintained. But he emphatically denies that he has lost hope of achieving a significant result. "No, not at all. No, no. no. I, on the contrary, I think that the amount of engagement only makes me more confident that we'll have a meaningful treaty," he said.

Anti-smoking activists are skeptical. Clive Bates, Director of the London-based group Action on Smoking and Health, or ASH, says what began as a weak text has, if anything, been further diluted in the latest round of negotiation. "I'm worried that if this process continues, it'll be diluted to the point where it isn't worth having," she said. "We can get an agreement, but if the agreement has no substantive measures in it, then frankly, it's not worth having. In fact, it would be an obstruction to good tobacco control policies around the world."

He and others point an accusing finger at the United States, and call on Washington to pull out of the negotiation.