To End Child Labour, the UN Must Cut Ties with Tobacco Industry
A child works in a tobacco field in Indonesia

Over the past several decades, the tobacco industry has tried to influence policy by partnering with various United Nations (UN) agencies. Many of these agencies, however, have since cut ties with the industry, thus safeguarding their initiatives and policies from Big Tobacco’s commercial interests. One notable exception remains and must be addressed: the continued membership of the tobacco industry-funded Eliminating Child Labour in Tobacco-Growing Foundation (ECLT) in the UN Global Compact (UNGC). More than 170 civil society organizations have now called on UNGC to end ELCT’s participation.

Tobacco industry benefits from UN partnerships 

The advantages the tobacco industry gains from these types of collaboration are not imagined or hypothetical. There is evidence that shows how it has benefited.

For decades, the tobacco industry nurtured its alliance with the International Labour Organization (ILO). Transnational tobacco companies financially supported the agency’s work, and Philip Morris International even displayed the ILO logo on its website. The closeness was reciprocated. In 2002, the ILO produced a glowing report about trends and prospects in the tobacco industry, and in 2017, included praise for its work with the tobacco industry in its Governing Body’s reference document.

The industry also sought to influence the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), positioning experts on various FAO/World Health Organization (WHO) committees and working to direct funding to research and policy groups sympathetic to the industry. And its work with United Nations International Children’s Emergency Fund (UNICEF) in the late 1990s (both directly and via front groups) on youth smoking prevention initiatives was revealed via industry documents to be a way to avoid meaningful tobacco control measures.

BAT used International Chamber of Commerce co-operation to get closer to WHO

An especially concerning example of attempted industry interference in health policy was British American Tobacco (BAT) allegedly using its ties to the International Chamber of Commerce (ICC) to influence WHO. As the “world’s largest business organization,” the ICC is regularly consulted by the UN on business issues. In 2000, then-BAT CEO, Martin Broughton, joined the ICC UK’s governing body; one of the listed membership benefits being “preferential access to the UN and its constituent organisations.”

In July 2000, the WHO published an exposé, Tobacco Company Strategies to Undermine Tobacco Control Activities, based on internal industry documents, claiming that the industry subverted its efforts to control tobacco use. 

The exposé did not stop the tobacco industry. Even as the WHO Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (FCTC) was being prepared, Broughton wrote to the ICC requesting that the organisation get involved in the negotiating process, from which the tobacco industry had been officially excluded. The WHO went on to coordinate and successfully complete the FCTC negotiations which, among other things, set the guidelines for preventing tobacco industry influence in public policy.

Other UN agencies have cut ties with the tobacco industry

In 2019, after a multitude of efforts from sustainable development and public health groups and several international non-governmental organisations, the ILO finally ended tobacco industry funding. The FAO has since moved to demand transparency and accountability from its expert consultants (an effort about which the full effect is still unknown), and UNICEF has stated that it has developed a policy on tobacco, though the policy has yet to be published on UNICEF’s website. These are all important steps in keeping the tobacco industry out of the UN.

The UNGC must end the ECLT’s membership to cut ties with tobacco industry

The UNGC is a voluntary UN initiative made up of businesses, public sector organisations, cities and non-governmental organisations committed to socially responsible business practices in the areas of human rights, labour, the environment, and anti-corruption. Recognizing that “tobacco products are in direct conflict with UN goals, particularly with the right to public health, and undermines the achievement of SDG 3,” the UNGC’s 2017 move to exclude membership from organisations that “derive revenue from the production and/or manufacturing of tobacco” was a smart one.

However, the ECLT remains a member of the UNGC. While its supposed pursuit of ending child labour (which it has yet to accomplish) looks good from the outside, the ECLT is actually an alliance of tobacco companies and growers—an industry front group—and its UNGC membership provides “the industry with the opportunity to have a seat at the policy table among respected organisations and sometimes Member State Delegations…” As we’ve seen with other UN agencies, this type of cooperation can hinder tobacco control and instead provide benefits to the tobacco industry. After two decades of ECLT’s work, child labor remains entrenched in many tobacco-growing regions.

That is why the UNGC should uphold the Model Policy for Agencies of the United Nations System on Preventing Tobacco Industry Interference, which affirms that “engagement with the tobacco industry is contrary to the United Nations system’s objectives, fundamental principles and values,” and look to FCTC Article 5.3 Guidelines for the necessary steps to prevent industry influence.

Ending child labor should not be in the hands of an industry whose supply chain allegedly benefits from practices that keep leaf prices low. A continued partnership promises to only hinder the elimination of child labor and continues to allow tobacco industry influence to stream into the UN.

The fight to eliminate tobacco industry influence within the UN system isn’t over—but UNGC excluding the ECLT would be an important step.

* Mary Assunta is Head of Global Research and Advocacy at the Global Center for Good Governance in Tobacco Control and a Partner in STOP.


Image Credits: Human Rights Watch.

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