Telling empowering stories, South Africans want to hear

Thursday, 08 February 2024 13:13

Protect our Next at COP10 WHO Tobacco Treaty negotiations in Panama.

By Lehlohonolo Lehana.

Image Supplied.

Leaders from Protect our Next partner organisations are currently in Panama for the Tenth Conference of the Parties (COP10) under the banner of the WHO Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (FCTC) happening from February 5 – 10, 2024.

These include the National Council Against Smoking, the South African Tobacco-Free Youth Forum, the Africa Centre For Tobacco Industry Monitoring And Policy Research (ATIM) and the convenor of Protect our Next, Zanele Mthembu. The conference brings together delegates from around the world to discuss and take action on various aspects related to tobacco control and the implementation of the FCTC.

COP10 is taking place at a crucial time for South Africa, where the new Tobacco Products and Electronic Delivery Systems Control Bill has been approved to go before parliament and is currently undergoing a public consultation process, says Dr Sharon Nyatsanza, Deputy Director of NCAS. "South Africa ratified the WHO Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (FCTC) in 2005. The implementation of the new Bill will further align South Africa with its FCTC commitments, and should not be delayed any further."

Nyatsanza has a clear message at COP10. "We urge Parties, especially those from Africa, to do right by their people and adopt decisions that will speed up the implementation of the FCTC. The goal is to achieve an Africa free from tobacco and its consequences. We must not let Africa be left behind."

COP10 commenced with a powerful message from WHO Director-General, Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus - "We must continue advocating for urgent and accelerated implementation of the WHO FCTC. We must continue to be on our guard against the tobacco industry and its tactics."

Dr Adriana Blanco Marquizo, Head of the Secretariat of the WHO Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (WHO FCTC), highlighted the slow implementation of the Convention, new and emerging nicotine and tobacco products, and the persistent interference by the tobacco industry as major challenges to address. She says that while measures that are 100% in the hands of the Ministries of Health, such as smoke-free environments and graphic health warnings, can be implemented by executive decree - in many cases, they have not. "Remember that we are here to protect people from an industry that profits from suffering and death –  and in the end, it’s truth and what’s right that will prevail."

The conference offers a platform for discussing the progress of the FCTC, particularly in normalising smoke-free policies worldwide, banning tobacco advertising, and introducing health warnings on tobacco products. The agenda includes critical items such as the adoption of specific guidelines to protect the public from tobacco advertising (Article 13) and the consideration of forward-looking measures for advanced countries in tobacco control (Article 2.1). One of the key agenda items at COP10 is on preventing tobacco industry interference in environmental solutions. This highlights the need for stringent measures to ensure that the tobacco industry does not hinder global efforts to promote sustainability and protect the environment.

Nyatsanza says COP10 also presents an opportunity to hold the tobacco industry accountable and liable for the health, societal, and environmental harms it causes. Enhancing liability measures against tobacco companies is on the agenda. "We urge Parties to make pronouncements that will pave the way to recover the costs of healthcare and environmental damage borne by the government."

The international trade in illicit tobacco is another critical issue to be addressed at the conference. The governing body of the protocol is expected to deliberate on this matter, promoting greater cooperation and action to combat the illicit tobacco trade. 

Prof. Lekan Ayo-Yusuf, Director of NCAS, Head of the School of Health Systems and Public Health at the University of Pretoria and director of ATIM, says the conference serves as an opportunity to reflect on the overall progress and effectiveness of the WHO FCTC and discuss future directions for the Convention. "We look forward to important discussions focused on action and effective implementation of FCTC measures, in the face of intensifying efforts of the tobacco industry to undermine these measures and our collective health."

Lesego Mateme of SATFYF represents a youth voice at COP10, saying that the conference marks a crucial moment where youth concerns can be heard and acted upon by global leaders. "We are very concerned about the harms of emerging tobacco products, including e-cigarettes. The industry inaccurately positions them as 'harm reduction' measures, luring a new generation into addiction. Emerging tobacco products should be viewed as threats to our generation. Parties to the COP10 must act decisively, prioritise our future, and stand firm against the tobacco industry's deceptive manoeuvres."

The NCAS team is looking forward to fruitful discussions on emerging products. "Undeniably, urgent and decisive action must be taken. In January 2024, the UK announced its intention to ban disposable e-cigarettes to protect children. South Africa too must act - it must expedite the processing of the Bill if it is serious about protecting children and the youth. Parties should guard against tobacco and e-cigarette industry interference, particularly on this topic. They must seize the opportunity presented by these global tobacco control talks to protect present and future generations from all forms of nicotine."

The WHO FCTC is a powerful tool that Parties to the treaty can use to uphold human rights, particularly the right to health,  says Zanele Mthembu, a Public Health Policy and Development Consultant and the Convenor for Protect our Next. "COP meetings have a long history of taking a human rights approach to tobacco control. By making progress on implementing the FCTC, countries like South Africa are also advancing towards human rights responsibilities and sustainable development goals. COP10 is vital to show how governments, inter-governmental organisations, and civil society can work together to solve challenges and uphold human rights."