US should embrace efforts to combat smoking overseas

Smoking may be the world’s greatest global health threat. It kills nearly 6 million people a year around the world — more than HIV, tuberculosis, and malaria combined. The United States has done an admirable job of combating this threat within its own borders. But Washington has done embarrassingly little to address the problem overseas.

The US government spends about $8 billion on global health annually, but only about $7 million on tobacco-control efforts overseas, according to Thomas Bollyky of the Council on Foreign Relations. That’s a tiny amount, given the gravity of the problem and the cost-effectiveness of anti-smoking campaigns.

The United States has also failed to ratify the Framework Convention On Tobacco Control, an international treaty aimed at encouraging countries to implement anti-smoking initiatives that were pioneered in the United States, such as warning labels, bans on smoking in public places, and taxes.


Since the United States has already done most of what is required by this treaty, there is little to lose by ratifying it. Doing so would allow the United States to take its rightful place as a global leader on this issue. Instead, US officials had to sit on the sidelines of a recent meeting in South Korea, because the United States is not a party to the pact.

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But even if it is impossible to get the treaty through the Senate, where conservatives this month blocked even a disability-rights treaty signed by George W. Bush, the Obama administration could do a great deal more to help developing countries combat the scourge of smoking. Perhaps the most significant move would be to stop requiring poor countries to reduce tariffs on foreign cigarettes during trade negotiations.

In the 1980s, US officials forced countries that wanted to trade freely with the United States to put out a welcome mat for the Marlboro Man. Thankfully, Congress ended such blatant shilling on behalf of the US tobacco industry in 1998. But US trade negotiators still fight on the side of cigarette companies, under the guise of demanding an even playing field. To join the World Trade Organization, China had to lower tariffs on imported cigarettes from 200 percent to 25 percent.

Despite the enmity between global anti-smoking activists and tobacco companies, there is one area where they might find common cause: combating cigarette smuggling and counterfeiting, which cost governments around the world billions of dollars in lost tax revenues. New efforts to require tobacco companies to put tracking numbers on packages to prevent illicit trade make a lot of sense.