Environmental activists and public health advocates representing civil society groups have urged delegates to the World Health Organisation’s (WHO) biennial tobacco control, otherwise known as COP10 summit in Panama were greeted with calls to make Big Tobacco pay for its abuses.
Led by the Network for Accountability of Tobacco Transnationals (NATT), civil society groups and government champions urged Parties to the WHO Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (FCTC) to accept a draft decision strengthening nations’ ability to hold the industry liable and accountable.
The proposal is being championed by Oman, Pakistan and the Islamic Republic of Iran and co-sponsored by Brazil, Djibouti, Ghana, Iraq, Kuwait, Panama, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Syrian Arab Republic and Yemen.
Speaking, Daniel Dorado, Tobacco Campaign Director of Corporate Accountability, a NATT member, said: “When an individual violates someone’s health or safety, we as a society are supposed to hold them accountable. The same is true of tobacco corporations, which have inflicted enormous harm around the world.
“We must hold them responsible for their actions – not only to redress past harms but also to prevent them from continuing their abusive behaviour unchecked.”
For decades, the tobacco industry has caused millions of deaths and cases of preventable disease, polluted the environment, and violated human rights. Annual tobacco-related global healthcare costs are estimated at $US422 billion and economic costs more broadly at $US 1.85 trillion. There are also extraordinary environmental costs that have not been factored into prior accounting, such as the $US 2.6 billion tab to clean up tobacco product waste in China alone. Holding the industry liable could help governments recoup billions in such costs.
Another member of NATT and public health attorney from the Philippines, Irene Reyes, said: “Big Tobacco can only be profitable because we as a society bear the true costs of their business. While the tobacco industry rakes in nearly $1 trillion a year, regular people are forced to pay the price of their deadly products with our lives, our land, and our taxes. And the people who bear the most are those whom the industry targets: youth, people of colour and residents of low-income countries. Now, it’s time our governments hold the industry liable, and make Big Tobacco pay its many debts to society.”
NATT and its allies petitioned COP10 delegates to make Big Tobacco pay for its harms, which was endorsed by over 85 legal experts and garnered more than 30,000 signatures-representing people in 95 countries and territories and all six WHO regions.
Five member states are proposing a measure that would further strengthen Article 19 of the FCTC, a groundbreaking but underutilized provision that enables Parties to pursue liability. Several nations, including Brazil, Ireland, and Canada, have already filed health-related lawsuits against the industry, while the U.S. city of Baltimore launched a first-of-its-kind lawsuit to make tobacco corporations pay for cigarette butt pollution.
Vice Minister of Health in Panamá, Dr Ivette Berrio Aquí, said: “I strongly and respectfully encourage all governments present at this COP to support the draft decision on Article 19 of the WHO FCTC. […] Panamá is with you. Together, we can hold Big Tobacco accountable for their abuses.”
Delegates will decide on the proposal in the coming days of the talks, which will end on Saturday, February 10. The decision could serve as a model to hold other abusive industries liable, setting a strong precedent for the UN climate treaty, the nascent plastic treaty and other international bodies.
Also speaking, Executive Director of Corporate Accountability and Public Participation Africa (CAPPA), Akinbode Oluwafemi, said: “Abusive corporations from Big Tobacco to Big Oil are selling a deadly product and saddling society with all the costs that come with it. It’s not right and it’s past time for us to put an end to this corporate stranglehold on society.”
In 2019, the Office of the Attorney-General of Brazil filed a lawsuit against the largest tobacco corporations in the country and their parent companies abroad to recover healthcare costs for the treatment of patients suffering from 26 tobacco-related diseases, treatment for future patients, and collective moral damages caused by the tobacco public health burden.
Also, Thiago Lindolpho Chaves and Viníscus de Azevado Fonseca of the Office of the Attorney-General of Brazil, said: “So far the decisions have been favourable to the federal government, but there is still a long way to go, in part because the tobacco industry has delayed the case by submitting more than 25,000 pages of documents over the past four years.”
Managing Attorney at Action on Smoking and Health, Kelsey Romeo-Stuppy, insisted that tobacco executives and shareholders should be held to the same standards as the rest of us, saying: “Our leaders need to show these corporations that they can’t get away with murder, theft or environmental degradation anymore.
“The tobacco industry should not be allowed to further mislead our generation. Instead, it must be held accountable for the lasting pain and suffering it has inflicted and will continue to inflict upon countless lives. It must bear the financial consequences of the devastation it has wrought on the planet.”
In an open letter to the COP10 delegates, Global Youth Voices said: “Front groups and persons that voice industry positions should also be held accountable as they put us in danger. We urge you to prioritize ensuring easy access to justice for the youth and future generations.
Also, Executive Director of Vision for Alternative Development (VALD) in Ghana, Labram Musah, pointed out that tobacco products kill over 8 million people yearly and sickens many more millions, adding: “Nothing can bring back those mothers and fathers, brothers and sisters and friends. But we must make Big Tobacco pay for what they’ve done and continue to do. A healthier world is possible if our governments act with urgency and conviction to hold tobacco corporations accountable.”
Executive Director of Consumer Information Network, Samuel Ochieng, noted: “Billions of people worldwide need the Parties to the WHO FCTC to forestall the ravaging socio-economic effects caused by Big Tobacco. Let’s all act now to stop this genocide and blatant destruction of Mother Earth on which we all depend. Let’s make Big Tobacco pay.”