International Public Health Groups Applaud Uruguay’s Refusal to Weaken Tobacco Control

05 Aug 2010


MONTEVIDEO, 30 July 2010 – International health groups strongly support the Government of Uruguay’s decision not to bow to pressure from Philip Morris International (PMI) which filed a lawsuit against the government seeking to force it to weaken the country’s strong and effective tobacco control laws. The groups, including the American Cancer Society, Framework Convention Alliance, Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids, Corporate Accountability International, InterAmerican Heart Foundation and International Union Against Tuberculosis and Lung Disease emphasized the importance of Uruguay’s tobacco control laws to the health and well being of the country’s citizens. The groups also offered to provide technical and legal assistance to the Government of Uruguay.

Uruguay’s tobacco control laws are some of the strongest in the world, including graphic health warnings that cover 80 percent of cigarette packages, and a policy of one package per brand, which was adopted to deter the tobacco industry’s use of packages with colours and other symbols to substitute misleading descriptors such as “light” and “low tar” cigarettes.

On February 27, 2010, PMI announced that they had filed for arbitration at the World Bank’s International Centre for Settlement of Investment Disputes. PMI claims that the use of a single presentation of a brand, as well as graphic health warnings that cover 80 percent of tobacco packages, poses a risk to its investments. This lawsuit is a legal maneuver designed to force the Government of Uruguay to weaken its tobacco control laws, and therefore no longer effectively protect its citizens from the deadly consequences of tobacco use.

In a letter of support earlier this month, international groups stated that Philip Morris’ lawsuit is spurious and without merit and that Uruguay has a strong case in any international court based on the fact “that all tobacco control measures Uruguay implemented are based in scientific evidence and covered by the first modern-day International Public Health Treaty, the World Health Organization’s Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (FCTC)”.  In addition, the groups offered technical and legal support to Uruguay in its case against PMI.

If PMI succeeds in pressuring Uruguay, a country recognised worldwide as a leader in tobacco control, to weaken its public health tobacco control laws, it will have repercussions throughout the world and send a signal that countries can be intimidated by the threat of lawsuits by multinational companies like PMI. It will also undermine the impact of the FCTC, which requires countries that have ratified the treaty to implement scientifically proven measures to reduce tobacco use. Governments worldwide should not feel that they could be victims of PMI’s legal threats as a result of implementing effective measures that will reduce tobacco’s terrible toll on health, lives and money in their countries.

Uruguay is one of 22 countries that have passed or implemented graphic health warnings that cover at least 50% of cigarette packs, and one of only 10 countries whose health warnings cover more than 50% of packs. The Australian government recently approved the implementation of plain packaging, or standardized packaging that does not allow for colors or identifying marks such as pictures or logos. Additionally, the Honduras parliament recently followed Uruguay’s example and implemented 80 percent graphic warning labels on tobacco packs.

Large, picture-based health warning labels on tobacco packages are an essential component of a national strategy to reduce tobacco use. Research shows that effective warning labels increase knowledge about risks associated with smoking and can influence future decisions about smoking. Large and graphic warning labels can motivate smokers to quit, discourage nonsmokers from starting, and keep ex-smokers from starting again. For example, Brazil’s hard-hitting graphic warnings, as well as other tobacco control measures, have reduced the national smoking prevalence from 34 to 17 percent.

It is clear that Philip Morris International consciously chose to file suit against Uruguay to send a message to other countries seeking to protect their citizens from the health effects of tobacco. In November 2010, Uruguay will host the fourth Conference of the Parties (COP), in which nations that have ratified the FCTC meet to come to consensus on the treaty’s guidelines. In a letter to President Mujica, international groups said that “the COP presents an opportunity for the Government of Uruguay to make a formal request for the 169 Parties to create a mechanism and develop a strategy that not only protects Uruguay but the rest of the countries from similar maneuvers.” They offered the Uruguayan Government their help to make this request and to find support from among the other countries that are Parties to the FCTC for this initiative.

Immediate steps should be taken to stop the tobacco industry from undermining strong tobacco control laws and policies. The World Health Organization states that tobacco use already kills 5.4 million people a year and the epidemic is worsening, especially in the developing world where more than 80 percent of tobacco-caused deaths will occur in the coming decades. Unless urgent action is taken, one billion people will die worldwide from tobacco use this century.

CONTACT:    Eduardo Bianco – +598-94-41-65-59

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