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Can a treaty help reduce tobacco-related deaths?

By Maxine Shapiro, KERA 90.1 business commentator

Dallas, TX – While anti-smoking sentiment is growing in this country, the rest of the globe has seen an increase in tobacco sales and its deadly ramifications. 192 countries have an unprecedented plan to stop it and it might work. I'm Maxine Shapiro with KERA Marketplace Midday.

Yesterday, the World Health Assembly - the annual meeting of the World Health Organization - unanimously voted on an anti-tobacco treaty. Countries would be required to ban or impose tough restrictions on tobacco advertising, sponsorship and promotion within five years. And it took four years of negotiations before all the countries could agree on the wording.

The treaty declares: "The spread of the tobacco epidemic is a global problem with serious consequences for public health that calls for ... an effective, appropriate and comprehensive international response." The statistics by the U.N. health agency tells the story. Almost 5 million people die each year from cancer and other related diseases linked to smoking. That toll is expected to double by 2020. The developing countries account for 70% of the victims, which is why Asia and Africa where so anxious for its ratification.

The WHO is most frightened by the growing number of adolescents smoking. One in five 13-to-15 year olds smoke. Big tobacco companies have few restrictions in other countries. The practice of distributing free cigarettes in teenage clubs is common in growing markets, such as Russia, Cambodia and Poland.

So the treaty is calling for bolder health warnings on the packaging. Up to 50% of the pack could have vivid pictures of diseased lungs and gums. It's also persuading governments to clamp down on the use of "low-tar" and "mild" on the packs.

But the U.S. - home to Philip Morris, the world's largest exporter of tobacco - still hasn't agreed to sign the treaty. The powerful tobacco lobby says it would be an infringement on the First Amendment. Not so. And if the Bush administration doesn't sign it, the treaty basically loses its clout and we'll know just where the President stands on big business. For KERA Marketplace Midday, I'm Maxine Shapiro.


Marketplace Midday Reports air on KERA 90.1 Monday - Friday at 1:04 p.m.

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