12 November 2021
Jenny Lei Ravelo. Source: Devex
After a lengthy debate, the ninth session of the Conference of the Parties to the World Health Organization Framework Convention for Tobacco Control, or COP 9, concluded Friday with a declaration calling on countries to prevent tobacco industry interference and involvement in COVID-19 policies and actions.
The declaration, put forward by Iran and co-sponsored by several countries, emphasizes the need to “remain aware of the inherent and easily concealable conflicts between the tobacco industry’s interests and public health policies,” and the need for countries to continue protecting public health policy from the industry even amid a crisis, said Dr. Adriana Blanco Marquizo, head of the convention’s secretariat, in her closing remarks.
The adopted text was a product of a lengthy debate between countries. Some delegations, such as Guatemala, had reservations on the inclusion of the term “trade,” which was eventually removed in the final text. A phrase linking tobacco consumption to increased severe COVID-19 infection was also removed after some delegations raised questions over the “strength of the evidence” linking the two.Ambassador Esmaeil Baghaei Hamaneh, permanent representative of Iran to the United Nations Office in Geneva, who also presided as COP 9 president, reiterated during a press conference Friday that they needed to adopt the declaration by consensus.
“And to get there … I can tell you most of the time you need to take care of the competing views. Sometimes that might be different perception, different understanding of the text,” he said.
“But I think that the outcome, the resulting text, is not too much different from the original text,” he added, pointing out that the removed phrase relating to trade was “more or less” captured in a previous paragraph. That paragraph calls on parties to take measures to prevent industry interference and involvement in public health policies relating to COVID-19.
Meanwhile, Marquizo explained there is a difference between the role tobacco plays in increasing people’s risk of catching COVID-19, and the possibility of the virus making people “more sick” if they are smokers.
“So while the evidence is robust, and as WHO has on their webpage, [as smokers] you have from 40[%] to 50% more risk of developing severe outcomes from COVID … the evidence of the link between smoking and getting the [COVID-19] infection irrespective of severity is not so strong,” she said during the same press conference.
But with over 1,200 delegates having participated in the weeklong, virtual event, Marquizo said in her final remarks this is “further evidence of our collective determination to put an end to the tobacco epidemic.” But civil society observers have also expressed concerns of efforts by the tobacco industry to influence the discussions throughout the sessions.
Civil society concerns over pro-tobacco stance
The Philippines, which has the largest delegation at the virtual event of over 50 accredited representatives, echoed industry narratives on taxation and smuggling, in a statement made by the Philippine Secretary of Foreign Affairs Teodoro Locsin Jr., during the opening session of COP 9 Monday, according to the Southeast Asia Tobacco Control Alliance. In the statement, the Philippine official said that “tobacco is also a source of good through taxation” and that the industry has created products “that deliver a similar satisfaction [to tobacco], but with far less harm.”
It said that praising the industry for its tax contributions to public health funding “is misleading,” given that the cost of tobacco-related diseases in the country still far exceeds tax gains made from tobacco products.
“[As smokers] you have from 40[%] to 50% more risk of developing severe outcomes from COVID.”— Dr. Adriana Blanco Marquizo, head of the secretariat, COP 9
The annual cost of tobacco-related diseases in the country in 2011 was 177 billion pesos ($3.5 billion), seven times higher than the 25.9 billion pesos the government collected in taxes from tobacco products that year, according to the statement.
Some countries have also called for stakeholder inclusivity in the discussions, which some members of civil society warned could pave the way for tobacco industry views to be integrated in the discussions.
During an intervention, SEATCA Executive Director Dr. Ulysses Dorotheo reminded parties of their obligation to address tobacco industry influence.
“Article 5.3 [of the treaty] is an obligation of the whole of government and not just of ministries of health, and that addressing tobacco industry interference in the whole of government is essential for stepping up tobacco control efforts to protect public health,” he said.
“An industry that kills more than 8 million people a year is not a stakeholder in public health,” he added.