Interview - Winston Abascal, director of the International Cooperation Center on Tobacco Control05/31/2016 | Source: - Author: Manoel Giffoni
Weeks after Uruguay and Philip Morris submitted their closing arguments to the ICSID, the director of the International Cooperation Center on Tobacco Control, Dr Winston Abascal, talked to ISAGS about what motivated the dispute, its consequences and the outcomes regarding the reduction of the number of smokers in the country.
ISAGS: Which were the policies that motivated Philip Morris’ claim against Uruguay?
Winston Abascal: Philip Morris is challenging two of the several measure we have taken: the mandate that health warnings should cover 80% of cigarette packages, and a “single presentation” requirement. Before that, each brand had several different types of products, such as light and ultralight cigarettes, which conveyed a misleading perception of smoking risks. A study elaborated by a researcher from Brazil’s National Cancer Institute, my friend Tânia Cavalcante, revealed that removing the terms, as done in Brazil, did not suffice, considering that there was a color code being long used by marketing departments of tobacco companies and which had the same misleading effect.
I: Which are the expectations in Uruguay about the decision of the ICSID?
WA: Our hope is that reason will prevail, so our expectations are considerably good. Our policies were based on the interpretation of articles 11 and 13 of the Framework Convention of the World Health Organization on Tobacco Control, which urges countries to take measures against misleading packaging and to ban advertisement. Many other countries have also adopted these measures, with more or less intensity, but this is a consolidated practice towards the control of tobacco use and the protection of citizens from its harms.
I: What were the results of these policies in Uruguay, one decade after their implementation?
WA: The most important result, which is a strategic achievement for us, is that, in 2003, 30.2% of adolescents from 11 to 17 years old were smokers. In 2005, we started to implement the policies defined in the Framework Convention, ratified by Uruguay in 2004. The most recent survey, carried out last year, revealed that the prevalence among adolescents is now of 9.2%. That is a remarkable reduction! Considering that more than 90% of smokers start smoking before they are 21 years old, and that the reduction was achieved exactly among this new generation, this means that, over the next few years, the remaining part of the prevalence among adults will continue to decrease.
I: What is the borderline between the defense of investors’ interests and a country’s public health imperatives?
WA: This is an issue that is currently under debate at the global level. The countries that have just agreed on the text of the Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement [on Economic Cooperation], which covers 40% of the global trade, have expressly excluded tobacco companies’ claims against States from their arbitration systems. That is, tobacco claims have been completely left out, and this is a clear consequence of everything that is going on now, including Philip Morris’ claim against Australia in the World Trade Organization and Philip Morris’ claim against Uruguay in the ICSID. This will also impact the Transatlantic [Trade and Investment] Partnership between the United States, Canada and the European Union. The measures that protect the health of citizens are legitimate and should come from a sovereign decision. States should be able to regulate these issues whenever the measures taken are not arbitrary or discriminatory. And these ones are not.
I: After working as the Director of the Uruguayan Program for Tobacco Control, you are now at the International Cooperation Center on Tobacco Control. How is it possible to articulate a strategy towards a reduction in prevalence at the regional level?
WA: This is one of the six centers for the exchange of knowledge, as decided in the Framework Convention. Whereas the Australian center deals with legal aspects and the Finnish center addresses epidemiological aspects, the center located in Montevideo works at the implementation of the measures defined in the Framework Convention. Over the past few months, other centers have been established in South Africa, Lebanon and Korea. There is a wide field for cooperation in our continent, especially concerning how to implement measures, their immediate effects and how prevalence and consumption are connected to Non-Communicable Diseases, which are an important cause of death in these countries.