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ARGENTINA: Tobacco Treaty Unratified, Six Years On

Marcela Valente

BUENOS AIRES, May 11 2009 (IPS) - Six years after signing the global World Health Organisation Framework Convention on Tobacco Control, Argentina is the only Latin American country that has not ratified it, for fear of losing tens of thousands of rural jobs in seven provinces.

The WHO convention, the first global public health treaty, was signed in 2003 by then President Néstor Kirchner (2003-2007). But parliamentary ratification is still pending.

The treaty requires signatories to adopt a comprehensive ban on all tobacco advertising, promotion and sponsorship of events by tobacco companies within five years of its ratification.

Its provisions also set forth minimum measures on taxes, prices, labeling, packaging, and protection from second-hand smoke, like the establishment of smoke-free areas.

But these provisions, accepted by other tobacco-producing nations, are staunchly opposed in Argentina by the tobacco industry and farmers, and ratification has been blocked in Congress by the representatives of tobacco-producing provinces.

“Until there is a replacement activity for tobacco growers, of which there are around 26,000 small producers around the country, ratification of the convention is unlikely,” Senator Sonia Escudero from the northwestern province of Salta, one of Argentina’s main tobacco-growing areas, told IPS.

“Our provinces are among the poorest in the country, and if we lose the 60,000 jobs that tobacco production provides, it would be complete chaos,” she said.

But civil society organisations pressing for ratification of the treaty downplay those arguments.

They say small tobacco farmers and workers suffer serious health consequences due to exposure to toxic chemicals, and that under-employment and child labour are other problems plaguing the sector. The activists argue that tobacco should be replaced by an equally or more profitable crop that does not pose such threats to health and the environment.

A recent visit to Argentina by Haik Nikogosian, who heads the WHO’s anti-tobacco convention secretariat, mobilised civil society and lawmakers sitting on the legislative health committees, who promised to revive the debate again and put the issue on the public agenda.

But legislators from the northern provinces of Jujuy, Salta, Tucumán, Corrientes, Misiones, Catamarca and Chaco are not optimistic about the possibility of finding adequate production and employment alternatives.

“Crop substitution experiments are being carried out, but so far no crop has been found that brings the returns provided by tobacco,” said Escudero.

The lawmakers from the seven tobacco-producing provinces argue that ratification of the treaty would spell the end of their regional economies

Argentina is among the world’s 10 biggest producers of tobacco, exporting around 80 percent of what it produces. However, the cigarette industry, which generates the largest number of jobs in the sector, is not based in the north, but in Buenos Aires. “I wish it was in our provinces,” said the senator.

Dr. Verónica Schoj, coordinator of the Smokefree Argentina Alliance (ALIAR), which groups around 100 tobacco-control advocacy organisations, rejected Escudero’s arguments.

“Brazil is the largest tobacco producer in the Americas and the second largest in the world after China, and both countries have ratified the convention, because it outlines supportive measures to improve the living conditions of farmers, and for crop substitution,” Schoj told IPS.

“Progress towards tobacco control is being made globally, and in the long run it will affect Argentina, whether or not it ratifies the convention,” she said. Besides, if the country does not ratify the treaty, it will be left out of the technical and financial support provided by the WHO and other organisations that work in that area, she said.

Smoking and exposure to second-hand smoke cause around five million premature deaths a year worldwide, according to WHO statistics.

In Argentina, tobacco use is accountable for 40,000 preventable deaths a year.

The aim of the WHO treaty, which provides a framework for signatory countries to adopt tobacco control measures, is “to protect present and future generations from the devastating health, social, environmental and economic consequences of tobacco consumption and exposure to tobacco smoke.”

The convention is an international response to a global problem. Schoj said that just as most cigarette-producing companies are transnational corporations, the fight against tobacco has to be international.

“The ratification of the convention would be a huge stride towards reducing the leading cause of preventable premature death in the country, and in reducing the 4.3 billion peso (around 1.16 billion dollars) annual expenditure on treating illnesses caused by consumption of or exposure to tobacco smoke,” she said.

Schoj pointed out that in 1992, lawmakers in both houses of Congress approved a draft law on tobacco control, which was later vetoed by then president Carlos Menem (1989-1999) in response to lobbying from the tobacco industry.

Today, although there is no clear sign that the companies are pressuring legislators, that possibility cannot be ruled out, she said.

Despite repeated promises by legislators to put the issue on the parliamentary agenda, Argentina is one of the few countries in the world that has signed but not ratified the treaty.

“There is a broad consensus on healthcare-related objectives, on which we should base our efforts to pass a law of our own, but the problem is that the convention affects production,” complained Escudero, who said her counterparts from the other tobacco-producing provinces share her views.

The convention, which was adopted on Mar. 21, 2003 and went into effect on Feb. 27, 2005, has been signed by 168 countries and ratified by 164. May 31 is World No Tobacco Day.

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