U.S. Set to Join Anti-Smoking Treaty

Published August 1, 2003

In an unexpected reversal of federal policy, Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy Thompson has pledged the U.S. will support a controversial global anti-smoking treaty.

The U.S. and Germany have been staunch opponents of the Framework Convention on Tobacco Control, the world’s first international treaty on smoking. Although the two nations have smoking laws that are among the toughest in the world, each has opposed, on free speech grounds, the Framework’s ban on tobacco advertising.

Twenty-eight countries and the European Union signed the treaty at a ceremony in Geneva on June 16. The signatures do not bind countries to the treaty, but are merely an expression of political support. The treaty will not go into effect unless at least 40 countries have ratified it. To date, only one country–Norway–has done so.

Surprising About-Face

In an about-face for the Americans, Thompson announced on May 18 in Geneva, “I’m going to support it–much to the surprise of many around the world.”

Added Thompson, “I’m not going to make any changes. We have no reservations. The delegation here, headed by me, is in support of the tobacco treaty.”

The United States did not, however, sign the treaty when it first opened for signatures on June 16. The treaty will remain open for signatures until June 29, 2004.

Thompson’s abandonment of free speech principles pleased anti-smoking crusaders. “It’s an astonishing departure from the obstructionist position the United States has taken throughout the negotiations,” said Kathryn Mulvey, executive director of the U.S. anti-smoking alliance Infact.

Thompson’s support of the treaty does not seal U.S participation, however. President George W. Bush may still decline to sign the treaty.

“The President is going to make a determination as to if and when he signs it,” said Thompson. “He will be reviewing it. It [recently] got up on his personal radar screen.”

Signing the treaty would send the wrong message on free speech, warns Jacob Sullum, senior editor of Reason magazine and author of For Your Own Good: The Anti-Smoking Crusade and the Tyranny of Public Health.

“I doubt the U.S. would sign onto a treaty that called for bans on racist and anti-Semitic speech,” he told Environment & Climate News. “So what’s the message if we sign the tobacco treaty? That Klansmen and Nazis are one thing, but people who sell cigarettes are truly beyond the pale?

“Freedom of speech doesn’t mean much if it applies only to popular speakers saying unobjectionable things,” he noted.

James M. Taylor is managing editor of Environment & Climate News. His email address is [email protected].