Why is the U.S. signatory to the World Health Organization Framework Convention On Tobacco Control, but not a ratified party?

In 1994, representatives from some of countries who were attending the ninth annual World Conference  On Tobacco Or Health in Paris, France proposed that an international treaty which is aimed at curbing tobacco use worldwide would be useful in gradually reducing the numbers of smokers in each country of the world in the upcoming decades of the twenty-first century.  Nine years later at the annual World Health Assembly in Geneva, Switzerland, representatives from more than 100 countries wrote the terms of the World Health Organization Framework Convention  On Tobacco Control.

As of July of 2019, there are nine countries which have not signed this convention, and there are six countries which have signed this convention but have not yet ratified it.  The six countries whose governments have signed party to this convention but have not ratified it are Argentina, Cuba, Haiti, Morocco, Switzerland, and the U.S.

The terms of the 2003 WHO FCTC address issues relating to addiction, health risks, warning labels on cigarette packs, banning advertising, public awareness regarding information about how to quit and cessation programs, restricting minors’ access to tobacco products, counterfeit cigarettes, sales taxes on tobacco products, the dangers of second hand smoke as well as the need for continued research regarding the health risks of smoking.  Most of these issues have been addressed by Federal, state and local laws in the U.S since the 1970’s, and the Federal laws regarding mandatory warning labels date back to the mid 1960’s.  Although we have quite a few regulations and laws in the U.S. which are consistent with the terms of this convention, the U.S. has not ratified this convention.

The health risks associated with smoking have been well understood for the past half century.  It has been known by scientists throughout the world since the 1960’s that smoking can lead to numerous forms of cancer, numerous lung diseases including asthma and emphysema, high blood pressure, heart disease, clogged arteries, obesity, birth defects, miscarriages, tooth decay as well as depression.  There have been tens of thousands, if not hundreds of thousands of articles which have been published in numerous newspapers, magazines and journals about the health risks which are associated with smoking, so I am not going to concentrate on attempting to further analyze the health risks in this article.  The 2003 WHO FCTC has led to the 2030 FCTC project, which is the first document of international law which looks at the tobacco industry in terms of its impact on global sustainability in the 21st century.  This is a newer perspective on global tobacco consumption, and the tobacco industry’s effects on sustainability issues need to be analyzed closely too.  

What Does “Signed Party To/ Not Yet Ratified” Mean?

In international law, the first step of a country becoming a full participant in a treaty is an ambassador or a representative from that country’s national government agrees to officially sign party to a treaty.  The next step in the process is each country’s national assemblies agree to review the terms of the treaty, and if they decide to approve of the terms of the treaty, then the governments of the countries whose national assemblies have agreed to approve of the terms of the treaty then proceed to ratify the treaty, thus making the countries whose governments have ratified a treaty full participants.

 So why is the U.S. signatory to the World Health Organization Framework Convention On Tobacco Control, but not a ratified party?

In the U.S., the President has to submit international treaties and conventions to Congress for ratification.  George W. Bush was President when the U.S. signed party to the WHO FCTC, and he never sent this treaty to Congress.  President Obama never sent this convention to Congress during his two terms, and the Trump administration has not announced any plans to send this convention to Congress for ratification.  As I was researching this article, I found notably few comments from Presidents Bush II, Obama or Trump regarding this convention, which means that this convention has been a low priority for our government for the past 15 years.

A Brief History Of The Tobacco Industry In The U.S.

The tobacco industry in the U.S. dates back to the colonial era during the 17th century.  Prior to the mid twentieth century, much less was known about the potential dangers of smoking.  Tobacco was almost always profitable, so many fields which had been used to grow tobacco during the colonial era continued to be used for the same purpose for three consecutive centuries.

In the 1950’s, scientists in a number of countries, including the U.S. began to realize the full extent of health risks that are linked to smoking.  Beginning in the mid 1960’s, the Federal government as well as numerous state governments began to enact legislation which was aimed at reducing tobacco consumption.  Among legislation which has been enacted since the 1960’s is the Federal law which requires that warning labels be printed on cigarette packs as well as in advertisements which warn smokers about the health risks which are associated with smoking.  Many state governments as well as county and city boards of education have enacted laws which require that information about the dangers of smoking be included in the health education classes and the science classes in elementary school, junior high school and high school curriculums.  

Some city and state governments have banned smoking in indoor spaces, on public transit, in workplaces, and the Federal government has banned smoking in all Federal buildings.  In 1970, the Nixon administration banned smoking advertisements from television and radio. Many state governments have placed restrictions on where billboard ads for cigarettes can be placed.  In some states as well as in some counties and cities, governments opt to continue to increase sales taxes on tobacco products. In recent years, the legislators in some state governments have banned cigarette vending machines in an effort to make it more difficult for minors to purchase cigarettes.  There have also been quite a few public service announcements on television and radio which warn people of the health risks associated with smoking and which offer information about how to quit smoking.

In recent years, there have been a number of lawsuits which groups of former smokers have filed against tobacco companies in a number of countries which have resulted in settlements being paid to the former smokers.  While I was researching this article, I could not find any surveys which were designed to determine whether these lawsuits effect peoples’ decisions to refrain from or to quit smoking, therefore it is not known whether these suits have had any impact on encouraging people to quit or if these lawsuits have had any impact on deterring people from trying smoking.  

Assessing The Effectiveness Of Anti Smoking Campaigns

Discouraging people from smoking and encouraging people to quit is a higher priority in some countries than in other countries.  While some governments have employed the techniques that I’ve mentioned in their efforts to curb tobacco use, other governments throughout the world opt to do less to discourage people from smoking and to encourage people to quit.  The techniques I’ve mentioned have been analyzed in many countries, and these techniques DO seem to be effective in reducing the numbers of smokers in the countries in which these techniques have been employed. Although these campaigns have been successful, there are still quite a few people who begin smoking every year in the countries whose governments allocate a lot of funding to encourage people to quit as well as to discourage people from starting.

The 2003 WHO FCTC Would Be An Easy Convention For The U.S. Congress To Approve

The current Congress would likely approve the terms of the 2003 WHO FCTC.  The Federal government as well as quite a few city and state governments in the U.S. have been enacting laws which are consistent with the terms of this convention since the 1970’s.  The U.S. has been a leader in terms of implementing programs which are aimed at reducing tobacco use since three decades prior to the initial proposal of this treaty.

So far, since he has assumed office in January of 2017 President Trump has said little about the 2003 WHO FCTC.  If President Trump takes the same approach as former Presidents Bush II and Obama did regarding this convention, he won’t send it to Congress for ratification either.  Concurrently, President Trump now has the opportunity to submit this treaty to Congress, which would result in the numerous Federal, state and city laws which are already aimed at reducing tobacco consumption, many of which date back to the 1970’s and the 1980’s now becoming linked to international law.  This would also result in the U.S. enacting further measures which would continue to reduce tobacco use throughout the course of the 2020’s and the 2030’s.

The only section of the 2003 WHO FCTC which might cause some of our Senators and Representatives to hesitate to approve this convention is that the WHO FCTC calls for a complete ban on tobacco advertising in each country which ratifies this convention.  However, the convention states that if the ban on advertising contradicts a nation’s constitution, then advertising tobacco products will be permissible. As I mentioned, in the U.S., advertising tobacco products on television and radio has been prohibited since 1970, but billboard advertising is still permitted.  Billboard advertisements are protected under the First Amendment, so billboard advertising of tobacco products in the U.S. would still be permitted if the U.S. were to ratify this convention.

Scott Benowitz

Scott Benowitz is a staff writer for Afterimage Review. He holds an MSc in Comparative Politics from The London School of Economics & Political Science and a B.A. in International Studies from Reed...