By Duff Wilson and Aditya Kalra
NEW YORK/NEW DELHI (Reuters) - The leadership of a World Health Organization (WHO) treaty on tobacco control has proposed barring delegates with ties to state-owned tobacco firms from its conference next week, tightening its application of rules to shut out the industry from policy making.
That would include delegates employed by state-owned tobacco companies or those otherwise "working to advance the interests of the tobacco industry," according to an internal communication document seen by Reuters.
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The proposal, if adopted at the conference of the Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (FCTC) in India, could restrict delegations sent by countries like China and Vietnam, where governments own cigarette companies and have in the past sent representatives linked to the industry.
Any such members of the 180 delegations at the Nov. 7-12 conference near New Delhi "would be requested to leave the premises", according to the Oct. 17 "note verbale", an official diplomatic communication, from the WHO FCTC secretariat on behalf of the treaty's leadership group to its parties.
The FCTC, the world's first international public health treaty, states explicitly that health policies need to be made independent of tobacco industry influence.
Its governing conferences have in the past ejected members of the public and the press after they were believed to have tobacco industry connections.
Yet up until now, the treaty's leaders had not moved to bar employees of state-owned tobacco companies.
At the last WHO FCTC conference, in Moscow in 2014, China's 18-person delegation had four members from the "State Tobacco Monopoly Administration".
At the 2012 conference, in Seoul, two of eight Vietnamese delegates were from the "Vietnam Tobacco Association".
When asked about the letter, a Vietnamese government official who declined to be identified told Reuters there would be no industry representatives in their delegation.
Reuters was unable to immediately contact China's State Tobacco Monopoly Administration for comment out of office hours.
FINAL DECISION YET TO BE MADE
FCTC secretariat official Guangyuan Liu on Thursday confirmed the "note verbale" was sent to parties recently.
When asked about the composition of China's delegation, Liu, team leader for governance and international cooperation at the secretariat, said: "We are still in contact with China and a final decision has not (been) made yet."
"The COP (conference of parties) eventually will make the final decision," Liu told reporters in New Delhi.
The proposed restriction highlights a growing battle between the industry and backers of the treaty, which went into effect in 2005 to guide national laws and policies in an effort to curb tobacco use, which kills an estimated 6 million people a year worldwide.
The global tobacco industry is estimated to be worth nearly $800 billion this year.
The International Tobacco Growers Association, a non-profit group partly funded by big international cigarette companies, said the proposal was "beyond the wildest imagination".
António Abrunhosa, chief executive of the group and a Portuguese tobacco grower, said in an email to Reuters that such a step was "unthinkable for a United Nations agency".
John Stewart, deputy campaigns director at Corporate Accountability International, a Boston-based advocacy group that has supported tobacco-control efforts, praised the proposed restrictions.
"The tobacco industry has really forced parties and the secretariat into a corner," he said in an interview.
"This is a bold good-government action to ensure that the treaty space, the place where public health policies will save millions of lives, is free of tobacco industry intimidation."
Issues for debate at the conference include alternative livelihoods for tobacco farmers, e-cigarette regulation and trade and investment issues.
The secretariat earlier wrote to the treaty's party nations asking them to exclude people with tobacco interests from their delegations.
In the latest note, the secretariat said it then turned to a FCTC leadership group for guidance after receiving a number of nominations from countries that ignored the suggestion.
(Additional reporting by Sue-Lin Wong in Beijing; Editing by Tom Lasseter, Robert Birsel and Mike Collett-White)