Sign of the times

    Abrie du Plessis
    As part of various roles within the tobacco industry, Abrie du Plessis spent almost two decades tracking the development of the FCTC, from its early beginnings in 1995 until his retirement after COP5 in 2012. In his current role as an independent trade law consultant, Du Plessis still follows FCTC developments with interest.

    Have we seen (yet another) post-truth COP in Delhi?

    By Abrie du Plessis

    Just after COP7 concluded in Delhi, Oxford Dictionaries declared “post-truth” as its 2016 international word of the year, reflecting what it called a “highly charged” political 12 months. “Post-truth” is defined as an adjective relating to circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than emotional appeals. Its use dates to around 1992, but its 2016 selection follows the Brexit vote in June and the recently concluded U.S. presidential election.

    While reflecting on what happened at COP7 it struck me that from the time of COP4 in Uruguay, FCTC COPs started to acquire features reminiscent of the post-truth approach. In fact, they seem to have taken the concept further, in that they prioritize emotional appeals over facts to shape not only public opinion but also the official positions of governments and of the international community. The recent COPs also took the step of isolating themselves from outside stakeholders and from opposing viewpoints. In doing so, they effectively reinforced the post-truth approach.

    I may of course be challenged to state on exactly what basis I characterize the last few COPs as post-truth events, so please consider just a selection of the views currently being promoted as part of the COP process:

    • At a time when the tobacco industry is wholly excluded from policymaking, it is more than ever portrayed as a major obstacle to tobacco control.
    • Despite the fact that the World Trade Organization has recently demonstrated that its rules can strike a balance between health and trade, those rules are constantly attacked as being unfit for purpose.
    • With the globalization of the tobacco industry now largely behind us, the risk of tobacco multinationals entering new markets are presented as a constant an imminent threat.
    • The FCTC is no longer portrayed for what is—namely a (mostly) finite framework of tobacco control measures to be taken at the national level—but as an ongoing (and global) campaign against the tobacco industry and its employees.
    • The FCTC process is buying into the post-truth dogma of viewing globalization and multinational companies as amongst the major ills to have befallen mankind.
    • Governments that want to implement FCTC measures in a manner that takes into account their national circumstances (which is their right) are being portrayed as obstacles to FCTC progress.
    • The expressly nonbinding FCTC guidelines are portrayed as binding, with an imminent threat of action against sovereign FCTC parties.
    • On the substantive side, the list goes on and on: Tobacco advertising and promotion, largely a thing of the past, is presented as more of a problem than ever; long-standing product features are misrepresented as being novel; effectively banning tobacco products is being disguised as an attempt to reduce addictiveness; etc.
    • In the case of the Protocol to Eliminate Illicit Trade in Tobacco Products, the call is that the tobacco industry, which is best placed to contribute in an appropriate manner to the development of open track-and-trace standards, should be denied participation.

    To this should be added that the main supporters of the COP from the side of civil society, together with a small number of FCTC parties, certainly appear to have bought into the post-truth culture. They do not tolerate any views other than their own. They are dogmatic and prone to resort to name-calling whenever they encounter any form of debate. They do not tolerate any views other than their own. They have expanded their post-truth treatment of opposing viewpoints to way beyond their original target, the tobacco industry, by characterizing all attempts by other stakeholders to raise them as the efforts of “tobacco industry affiliates” (akin to the “Remoaners” in Brexit-speak).

    All of this raises the question as to why the FCTC process appears to have little choice but to move forward from its original point of departure to this new approach and, more importantly, why moving on to what one would have expected, which is an objective truth-based world, is not an option.

    The most logical explanation appears to be that moving on to a simple fact-based approach is for two reasons unappealing to the FCTC process: The first is that doing so vaguely reminds us of the fondly forgotten Campaign to Remain, an approach which many saw as lacking in energy, drive and above all, in emotion. In our current campaign-driven world an objective, nonemotional approach is clearly inadequate.

    But there is an even more important consideration, and herein lies the crux of the matter: Approaching the FCTC in an objective, fact-based manner will reveal that very soon the vast majority of countries will have implemented, in some shape or form, each and every one of the tobacco-control measures proposed by the convention. This raises the specter of the FCTC becoming largely redundant, as it will then have served its stated purpose. This consideration, more than any other, makes adopting a constantly evolving approach an absolute necessity for the FCTC.

    The main tools used to move into this next phase are innovation, isolation and institutionalization. The innovation point is apparent from the earlier description of the current FCTC world view. Put mildly, it involves an innovative and evolving reinterpretation of the facts to support a common purpose.

    Isolation from opposing viewpoints is the second important element of cultivating post-truth world views, and the COP process has certainly acquired a reputation for being exclusionary and nontransparent. It is ironic that it uses one of its most prominent post-truths, which is that any visibility of its workings will unduly benefit the tobacco industry, to drive this culture of nontransparency.

    Institutionalization is the last leg, in that institutions by their very nature are driven to innovate in order to safeguard their continued existence. If the FCTC Secretariat succeeds in turning itself into a global tobacco control agency, then ever more radical and costly programs, proposed and adopted in isolation from real-world considerations, may become the norm.

    In conclusion, I wonder whether some members of the tobacco control movement, when reading these comments, will at least see the irony, and will appreciate being recognized as pioneers of the post-truth era. I would not put any money on it, except maybe my post-demonetization stash of Indian Rupee banknotes.

    What happened at COP7?

    The final decisions taken at the seventh Conference of the Parties (COP7) were not yet available as Tobacco Reporter went to press, but, from the draft reports published on the World Health Organization (WHO) Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (FCTC) website, the following picture has emerged:

    Most FCTC parties were of the view that COP7 was going to be different from earlier COPs in that the focus was shifting away from developing instruments, such as FCTC guidelines, toward FCTC implementation. Many parties, however, expressed the view that COP6 had created too many separate work streams and felt that there could be a benefit in bringing most of them into a clearer and more focused future work plan. What follows is a short summary of the main debates and their provisional outcomes.

    The COP spent significant time discussing the slow pace of ratification of the Protocol to Eliminate Illicit Trade in Tobacco Products. The protocol currently has 24 parties, with 40 parties required for it to enter into force. It was decided that the draft agenda and relevant preparations for the first Meeting of the Parties (MOP) shall be agreed at a preparatory meeting where each WHO region shall be represented by up to two parties that have ratified the protocol. The COP appears to be foreseeing a very active role for the MOP, the secretariat of the protocol and the existing panel of experts in its eventual implementation.

    Extensive discussions on Article 5.3 (protection from the vested interests of the tobacco industry) have become the norm at COPs, and this event was no exception. What was new was whether this article provides a basis for excluding government representatives from parties’ delegations. In the end the secretariat appears not have pursued its initial request for formal powers to do so. A large number of journalists were given badges to attend the COP, but in the end they were, like the public, excluded after the end of day one. This caused significant debate, with some journalists protesting heavily.

    On Articles 9 and 10 of the convention, the COP adopted draft texts to be added to the nonbinding guidelines on the regulation of the contents of tobacco products and on tobacco product disclosures. These texts include a broad provision on regulating tobacco product features and disclosure of information relating to product features. The COP, however, deferred discussions on reducing the addictiveness of tobacco products to a later stage, with a majority of the parties taking the view that the adoption of texts was premature.

    On electronic nicotine and non-nicotine delivery systems (ENDS/ENNDS) the COP by and large accepted the report submitted to it by the WHO, and it also kept the earlier outcomes from COP6 in place. It appears likely that the WHO will keep monitoring these products and will submit a further report to COP8.

    On Article 17 and 18 (economically sustainable alternatives to tobacco growing), many parties raised the issue of a lack of financial resources to address this area. A novel proposal was that parties not currently growing tobacco should be encouraged not to introduce tobacco growing.

    On Article 19 (liability) the COP adopted the report of the expert group, including the “toolkit,” as a mechanism of assistance for those parties that may require assistance in their implementation of Article 19. The COP now appears to have concluded the work of the expert group on liability.

    There was little support for the proposal that the COP should include further work on the settlement of disputes in its work plan. The main reasons were the lack of real disputes and the already low formal acceptance level of the existing FCTC mechanism.

    As at previous COPs, there were extensive discussions on whether the existing World Trade Organization dispensation provides an adequate mechanism to balance health and trade concerns. The COP considered the latest developments in this area, but no significant actions were proposed.

    Parties were divided on the exact nature and purpose of the proposed implementation review committee. Some felt that it was inappropriate or even illegal for them to be overseen by such a subsidiary body, while others felt that the functioning of such a body could be to provide implementation assistance instead of oversight.

    Funding of the FCTC process is always high up on the agenda, with the main concerns being that many parties are in arrears with their voluntary assessed contributions, and that around half of the FCTC budget relies on extra budgetary contributions. The COP was in favor of changing the voluntary assessed contributions to assessed contributions and to incentivize parties that are in arrears to meet their obligations. It is expected that the September 2015 inclusion of tobacco control in the sustainable development goals may over time make some funding earmarked for development available for FCTC related activities.

    Most FCTC parties did not want the discussion on the hosting agreement between the FCTC Secretariat and the WHO to develop into a discussion on greater autonomy for the FCTC Secretariat. They were instead in favor of even closer cooperation between the FCTC and WHO secretariats.

    The exact details of the work plan adopted by the COP and the allocation of responsibilities to working groups, expert groups, the FCTC Secretariat and the WHO will only be clear once the final decisions become available. As at past COPs, the availability of funding played a significant role in the debate on the allocation of the various parts of the work plan.

    It was decided that the next COP will take place in Geneva at the end of 2018. This is the first time an FCTC COP will take place in Geneva since COP1 in 2006. It is expected that COP8 will be followed by the first MOP to the protocol. —AdP