International Tobacco Treaty Stalls in U.S.

It has been nearly two years since the United States signed an international treaty to curb tobacco use. But the U.S. still has not ratified it. The Bush administration says it's studying the treaty. Critics say the U.S. is losing its moral authority and influence on global health policy because of its hesitation in sending the treaty to Congress for approval.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

And tobacco control groups say the Bush Administration is dragging its feet on a global tobacco control treaty. It's now been two years since the U.S. signed the treaty, but the administration has never sent it to Congress to be ratified.

NPR's Corey Flintoff reports.

COREY FLINTOFF reporting:

The agreement, called the Framework Convention on Tobacco Control, has been hailed as the first global public health treaty. So far, 124 countries have ratified the pact which, among other things, requires them to put large warning labels on cigarette packs, ban cigarette advertising, and forbid tobacco companies from sponsoring events such as soccer games or rock concerts.

Ms. KATHRYN MULVEY (Executive Director, Corporate Accountability International): It's really shameful that the U.S. is lagging behind the rest of the world particularly on an issue where important progress has been made.

FLINTOFF: Kathryn Mulvey is the head of Corporate Accountability International, a consumer advocacy group.

Ms. MULVEY: It's also shameful because the U.S. is home to the world's largest and most profitable tobacco transnational in Philip Morris/Altria.

FLINTOFF: But Altria/Philip Morris says it supports the treaty. This is spokeswoman Dawn Schneider.

Ms. DAWN SCHNEIDER (Spokeswoman, Altria Group, Inc.): We supported the FCTC process because that kind of regulation would bring consistency and uniformity to how tobacco products are designed, manufactured, and sold around the globe and very importantly, could potentially reduce the hard caused by smoking.

FLINTOFF: Schneider acknowledges that the treaty could also help her company deal with its less regulated competitors by subjecting all tobacco companies to the same international rules. She declines to speculate as to why the U.S., along with nations such as Russia and Indonesia, is among the few major countries that have not joined the treaty.

Ms. SCHNEIDER: We have not taken a position as to why the Bush administration has not taken action to ratify this treaty.

FLINTOFF: But Schneider says Altria/Philip Morris also supports domestic tobacco control legislation in the form of a bi-partisan bill now making its way through Congress. She says that would bring the U.S. into compliance with most of the provisions of the international treaty. Kathryn Mulvey of Corporate Accountability International says that doesn't address the global issues.

Ms. MULVEY: This is the first global public health treaty. It's measures that the world has agreed are affective for reversing a preventable epidemic that's claiming 5 million lives around the world each year. And if the U.S. can join onboard with that, we should be ratifying.

FLINTOFF: The U.S. State Department which has charge of international treaties, declined to provide anyone to speak on the record about this one. Instead, it issued a statement saying that the treaty is under consideration within the administration and will be sent to the Hill when the administration has finished its review. Senator Richard Durbin, a Democrat from Illinois, knows that the process has been going on for years.

Senator RICHARD DURBIN (Democrat, Illinois): When it comes to international health issues such as dealing with tobacco-related disease, you would think that the United States would want to be in the first rank of nations to approve this convention, but for reasons I cannot explain, the Bush administration will not even send this treaty to Congress for consideration.

FLINTOFF: The State Department did acknowledge that American officials had to sit on the sidelines during the first meeting of the treaty organization in Geneva last month. Because the U.S. is not a party to the treaty, American officials didn't have a vote in how it would be implemented. Corey Flintoff, NPR News, Washington.

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