WHO FCTC Conference of Parties Adopts New Decision on Curbing Tobacco’s Environmental Impacts, but Sidesteps E-Cigarettes
Closure of the Tenth FCTC COP: Head of the WHO FCTC Secretariat Dr Adriana Blanco Marquizo and COP10 President Zandile Dhlamini (Eswatini)

The Tenth Conference of Parties (COP10) of the WHO Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (WHO FCTC) sidestepped a controversial debate on e-cigarettes and heated tobacco products – effectively kicking the can on any decisions related to regulation of that swelling market to the next meeting in two years time.

However, the parties at the conference, the first face-to-face meeting in six years, agreed on a milestone decision strengthening language around Article 18, and “protection of the environment and the health of persons in respect of tobacco cultivation and manufacture.”

The parties also agreed to strengthen Article 19, which nations can use to hold the tobacco industry liable for its devastating impact on people’s health and the planet. The civil society group Corporate Accountability welcomed that measure as a “historic step forward to make Big Tobacco pay.”  And the COP adopted a “Panama Declaration” reaffirming the “fundamental and irreconcilable conflict” between the tobacco industry and public health.

Article 18 – historic moves on environmental protection

Dr Adriana Blanco Marquizo, Head of the WHO FCTC Secretariat, also described the new decision on Article 18 as “historic” – insofar as it expands and details the measures that countries should take to limit tobacco’s environmental harms.   

“The decision urges Parties to take account of the environmental impacts from the cultivation, manufacture, consumption and waste disposal of tobacco products, and to strengthen the implementation of this article, including through national policies related to tobacco and protection of the environment,” Blanco Marquizo said at a Saturday press conference concluding the week-long meeting.

“Globally, some 200 000 hectares of land are cleared every year for tobacco cultivation, accounting for up to 20% of the annual increase in greenhouse gasses (GHGs),” added WHO in a press release released on Sunday, just after the close of the week-long conference, although it failed to explain the source for the GHG estimate.

The new decision also addresses the issue of cigarette filters. An estimated 4.5 trillion cigarette butts are thrown away annually worldwide, representing 1.69 billion pounds of toxic trash- containing plastics. 

When exposed to sunlight and moisture cigarette filters break down into smaller plastic pieces, eventually leaching out some of the 7000 chemicals contained in a single cigarette. Many of those chemicals are environmentally toxic. “The decision on Article 18 is very timely given the ongoing intergovernmental negotiation committees working to develop an international legally binding instrument on plastic pollution, including in the marine environment,” stated WHO.

Delayed action on e-cigarettes and heated tobacco products

On the down side, action on new tobacco products that was expected to be one of the main conference outcomes was delayed – apparently under significant industry pressure.

Instead of a final agreement on a decision around e-cigarettes and heated tobacco products, the delegates agreed to create a working group to continue reviewing and revising the advice that would be produced until COP 11 in two years time. Industry has been pressing very hard on vapes as a way of reducing smoking harms.

Even though no common stance was agreed upon, countries can already take action based on existing FCTC resources and guidance, asserted Nuntavarn Vichit-Vadakan of Thailand, chair of a COP10 working committee addressing the issue. 

Those include ”Partial guidelines for implementing articles 9 and 10; an “information note on new and emerging tobacco products”; and a July 2023 report by the WHO FCTC Secretariat on the challenges posted by novel and emerging tobacco products. 

“The partial guidelines are ready for implementation by parties, only a few points are left unfinished,” Vichit-Vadakan said. But she expressed hope that the working group created at COP10 would make more progress on the regulation of new tobacco products over the coming two years, saying, “Each time we have decisions, we make one step forward to protecting the population.” 

Heated tobacco and e-cigarettes are soaring in popularity, especially among the young, even as the proportion of consumers of more traditional tobacco products like cigarettes has declined, from 33% of adults at the beginning of the century to 22% in 2023.

Big tobacco firms such as Philip Morris International, British American Tobacco and others have invested heavily in fighting regulation of the new products, promoting a narrative that frames them as a safer, cleaner alternative to traditional cigarettes, which support “tobacco harm reduction”. 

At the COP, a number of countries, led by Guatemala and including the Philippines, China, Russia, Antigua and Barbuda, echoed industry talking points that attempt to frame heated tobacco products and vapes as less risky than cigarettes, calling for more debate and research on the topic. This, critics say, will also delay implementation of lifesaving protections.

Member states at closing session of the Tenth Framework Convention Tobacco Control (COP10)

Panama declaration, against industry interference

Tobacco-aligned interest groups also organized a series of parallel events to the COP, attacking the Conference for an alleged lack of transparency and exclusion, ignoring the internal rules of the international treaty and its meetings, which establish safeguards to protect the conference of vested interests.

Industry representatives were also present during a daily debriefing organised by the Brazilian delegation, lobbying in favour of tobacco trade, reported the Global Alliance for Tobacco Control.

Despite those moves, the conference, saw far less interference than last December’s UN Climate Conference in Dubai (COP28), civil society advocates observed. 

“The talks were not inundated with corporate lobbyists like the most recent U.N. climate summit. The FCTC provides a strong example for how the UNFCCC and other international bodies can protect policy from corporate profit-seeking,” said Corporate Accountability.

Against that background, the adoption of the “Panama Declaration” was also a symbolic gesture of defiance. 

The Declaration refers to the “fundamental and irreconcilable conflict between the tobacco industry’s interests and public health policy interests,” Blanco Marquizo said, describing big tobacco as an “industry that profits from suffering and death.”

Meeting of Parties on illicit tobacco products

A smaller, four day Meeting of the Parties (MOP3) of February 12 to 15 follows the concluded conference. The 62 participating parties will look at progress in implementing the Protocol to Eliminate Illicit Trade in Tobacco Products.

FCTC’s implementation report found that since the last meeting of the MOP, over a half of the parties reported progress in tracking and tracing tobacco products (Article 8 of the Protocol), which makes smuggling more difficult.

Less has been achieved in terms of international collaboration, with respect to measures such as mutual legal, training and technical assistance or extradition of suspects of illegal trade in tobacco products.

Tobacco burden

Illegal or not, smoking is a major public health burden, killing over eight million people worldwide every year, according to the WHO

WHO Director General Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus called tobacco “the biggest public health threats the world has ever faced” in his opening address at COP10.

More than 20 years since it was adopted by the World Health Assembly, the WHO Framework Convention on Tobacco Control remains one of the world’s most powerful tools for health,” asserted Tedros. One study from Nature Medicine presented during the conference confirmed, for instance, that taxing tobacco products significantly reduces the number of people who become addicted.

“We are proud of the progress made by Parties during the tenth global tobacco treaty talks in the areas of liability against the tobacco industry and protecting the environment and human rights,” said Daniel Dorado, Corporate Accountability’s Campaign Director. “Now, we urge Parties to implement these measures at home to advance justice and make Big Tobacco pay for its harms to people and the planet in the next two years before Parties meet again in 2026.”

Image Credits: WHO/FCTC/Octoma.

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