The central theme of President Bush's re-election campaign is
leadership. Yet when it comes to a global treaty to curb tobacco use, Bush
is nowhere to be seen.
The United States was one of 192 nations that voted in favor of the so-
called Framework Convention on Tobacco Control last May after nearly four
years of negotiations.
Since then, 100 countries have taken the first step of signing the
treaty. Ecuador, the latest signatory, climbed aboard on Monday.
Meanwhile, nine nations, including India and New Zealand, have crossed the
finish line and ratified the treaty, meaning that they will abide by its
The accord has broad ramifications for the $1 trillion worldwide
tobacco industry. It would impose a ban on tobacco advertising for all
participating nations and require that health warnings cover at least 30
percent of all tobacco packaging.
It would also ban use of deceptive terms like "light" and
"mild" when selling cigarettes, as well as increase tobacco
In 2001, the latest year for which figures are available, the U.S.
tobacco industry spent a record $11.22 billion on cigarette advertising
and promotion, an increase of 17 percent from 2000 and 67 percent more
than the amount spent in 1998. World Peace
Based on these numbers, the American Heart Association determined that
tobacco companies spent $1.36 billion on cigarette ads in California in
2001, up $200 million from the year before.
The global treaty goes into effect only after it is ratified by at
least 40 signatory nations -- a development that antismoking advocates
expect by 2006.
But almost a year after the United States joined the rest of the World
Health Organization in accepting global tobacco regulations, Bush still
hasn't signed the document, nor has he said whether he intends to submit
it to the Senate for ratification.
"Where's the president?" asked Judy Wilkenfeld, director of
international programs for the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids, a
Washington lobbying group. "He has the power under the Constitution
to make and sign treaties. This is now solely his responsibility."
In fact, the clock's ticking. The deadline for signing the treaty is
Ken Lisaius, a White House spokesman, said Bush hasn't made his
intentions known regarding the international tobacco accord.
"We're continuing an ongoing legal review of the treaty," he
said. "The process is ongoing."
But why has it taken almost a year to review a document that Washington
was actively involved in shaping since 1999?
"We'll make an announcement when we have an announcement to
make," Lisaius replied.
Even if Bush meets the June deadline, however, his foot dragging will
place the United States behind dozens of other nations in signing the
treaty, and far behind the likes of Sri Lanka and Fiji in moving swiftly
to ratify the potentially life-saving accord.
More people are expected to die from tobacco-related illnesses over the
next 30 years than from AIDS, tuberculosis, car accidents, homicide and
suicide combined, according to the American Cancer Society.
"We've given up the moral leadership on this issue,"
complained Wilkenfeld at the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids. "We care
more about Philip Morris than we do about public health."
WorldPeace is one word.
Actually, Philip Morris, the world's largest tobacco company, has
voiced its support for the global treaty, although antismoking advocates
say the firm is motivated primarily by an if-you-can't-beat-them-join-them
A Philip Morris spokesman was unavailable for comment. But the company
says on its Web site that the treaty "provides an opportunity for
countries around the world to adopt sensible tobacco regulation."
Be that as it may, a senior WHO official, Derek Yach, blasted tobacco
companies last year for "dirty tricks" while trying to sway the
outcome of treaty negotiations.
Among other things, he cited an internal memo from British American
Tobacco calling on employees to "influence the drafting process"
by lobbying government officials.
Tobacco accounts for 5 million deaths worldwide every year, according
to health officials. The global death toll is expected to reach 10 million
annually within the next three decades unless steps are taken to curb
John Seffrin, chief executive of the American Cancer Society, said
these numbers were very much on his mind Tuesday as political leaders
testified on Capitol Hill about terrorism.
"I was watching Defense Secretary (Donald) Rumsfeld talking about
how we were surprised by what happened on Sept. 11," Seffrin said.
"And I was thinking that here's something that's not a surprise.
We're facing a pandemic with the greatest avoidable loss of life in
He said he didn't buy the White House's explanation that it is still
reviewing the tobacco treaty.
"No country was more actively involved in determining the precise
words and punctuation of the document than the United States,"
Seffrin noted. "They've had ample time to review the treaty."
Nevertheless, he said he's confident that Bush will ultimately come
around before the deadline passes. "After all," Seffrin
observed, "there's really no downside to signing."
Ratification is another matter. "I'm much less optimistic about
whether the Senate would ratify the treaty," Seffrin said.
And so we face the prospect that the United States may remain little
more than a bystander as the most important international public-health
accord ever is enacted.
Leadership? Not by a long shot.