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World health officials debate new tobacco controls

Health officials from across the world gathered on Monday in Uruguay to discuss tighter controls on tobacco that are rejected by farmers and the cigarette industry.
/ Source: Reuters

Health officials from across the world gathered on Monday in Uruguay to discuss tighter controls on tobacco that are rejected by farmers and the cigarette industry.

The World Health Organization meeting comes as the South American country fights a complaint filed by global tobacco company Philip Morris International, which says tough Uruguayan anti-smoking laws are hurting its business.

A total of 171 countries have signed the Framework Convention for Tobacco Control and delegates at this week's gathering will analyze proposals to limit the use of additives in cigarettes. The global public health treaty addresses tobacco industry marketing and cigarette smuggling.

Supporters of a ban on tobacco additives say the substances improve the flavor of cigarettes, encouraging consumers to smoke more. Other issues on the table include proposals for tobacco companies to disclose more about their products and a gradual reduction in tobacco farming.

Tobacco growers' groups say such measures would strip some 3.6 million African farmers of their livelihoods.

"If these WHO directives are adopted, some of Africa's poorest countries, which depend on tobacco, are going to face a major social and economic crisis," Antonio Abrunhosa, head of the International Tobacco Growers Association, said in the run-up to the meeting.

Argentina's Nobleza Piccardo, part of British American Tobacco, said some of the recommendations lack "sufficient scientific evidence about any impact they might have on public health."

Uruguay has been at the vanguard of anti-smoking laws.

Former President Tabare Vazquez, an oncologist, banned smoking in public buildings four years ago. Tobacco advertising and the sale of products branded as "light" are banned, and cigarette packets must carry large, jarring health warnings.

Such rules drew the ire of Philip Morris, which earlier this year filed for arbitration at the World Bank's International Center for Settlement of Investment Disputes.

Philip Morris said it supported many of the Uruguayan measures, but disputed several regulations including an increase in the size of health warnings and a rule that limits the number of brands any one company can sell.

"Our ... claim only challenges three regulations implemented in 2009 by the former administration that go far beyond public health objectives," the company said.

Its complaint is based on a trade deal between Uruguay and Switzerland, where the tobacco company is based.

Uruguayan President Jose Mujica on Monday lambasted the multinational firm for "using the courts to complicate the life and sovereignty of a small nation that has had the audacity to try to defend its people's health."