The World Health Organization (WHO) said Monday that member states are deliberating a roadmap for the global tobacco control agenda and strengthening implementation of the tobacco control treaty over the next five years.
The Conference of Parties to the WHO Framework Convention for Tobacco Control (FCTC) opens its eighth session (COP 8) in Geneva on Monday, to review the progress in reducing tobacco use and strategies for addressing the emergence of new tobacco products and tobacco industry interference in tobacco control efforts.
Two dramatically different views on the best way forward in reining in smoking were on display, with organizers and activists maintaining the tobacco companies had nothing to offer, and the industry insists its new products are key to halting a smoking epidemic that causes some 7 million deaths each year.
"This is not a time to be complacent," Vera Luiza da Costa e Silva, who heads the secretariat of the Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (FCTC), said as delegates from 137 countries gathered to discuss the treaty.
"With astronomical budgets, the tobacco industry continues its furious efforts to undermine the implementation of our treaty"
The eighth meeting of the parties to the convention since it took effect in 2005 is expected this week to focus heavily on efforts to limit influence by Big Tobacco on the proceedings.
WHO chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus described the convention Monday as "one of the greatest public health achievements in the past 20 years".
And the FCTC hailed "significant progress" in many of its 181 country parties in implementing the requirements of the treaty, including in creating smoke-free areas and banning advertising for tobacco products.
But, it cautioned, "tobacco industry interference, combined with the emergence of new and novel tobacco products, continues to be considered the most serious barrier to the implementation of the Convention."
In a bid to limit their influence, tobacco company representatives are barred from the conference, while delegates, observers and the media are asked to sign forms disclosing any connections to the tobacco industry.
Yet AFP spoke with several tobacco company executives who said they accessed the public gallery Monday to observe the proceedings.
The companies insist they should at least be allowed in the room.
"This is not about influencing, this is about presenting our view," said Michiel Reerink, vice president of regulatory strategy at Japan Tobacco International (JTI), and one of the industry executives who observed the public opening of Monday's meeting.
"It is our industry and our products that are the subject of the debate."
"We believe we should be part of the conversation," Moira Gilchrist, Philip Morris International (PMI)'s vice president of scientific and public communications, told reporters Monday.
She was speaking at a Geneva hotel not far from the convention center, where PMI has set up a stand to show off its portfolio of so-called harm-reduction products, including e-cigarettes and heated tobacco sticks, to delegates.
PMI and other companies say such products are far less dangerous than traditional cigarettes and insist they are key to helping move smokers unable to quit completely over to "safer" alternatives.
They would like the FCTC and policymakers to embrace the new products and are calling for less taxation and the right to promote them as less harmful than combustible cigarettes.
Da Costa e Silva of the FCTC told AFP last month that, in light of the tobacco industry's history of lying about the health impact of their products, she did not trust their claims.
"They said the same thing when they released filters for tobacco products, that this would be healthier products," she said.
"You can't trust what the tobacco industry says."
According to WHO FCTC, tobacco use kills more than 7 million people around the world each year. /VCG Photo
According to WHO FCTC, tobacco use kills more than 7 million people around the world each year, and causes serious disability and significantly increases the risk of a number of additional diseases not immediately linked to it such as tuberculosis.
Global estimates show that every year tobacco use costs the global economy 1.4 trillion US dollars, nearly 2 percent of the global gross domestic product, while tobacco growing also causes up to 5 percent of deforestation worldwide and results in biodiversity loss and soil degradation, as well as water and soil pollution from pesticide use.