In Putin snub, US will skip global tobacco summit hosted by Russia

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In a shot at Russian President Vladimir Putin, the United States will not send a delegation to Moscow this month to participate in global health talks that hold major implications for the tobacco and burgeoning e-cigarette industries.

Hosting the World Health Organization summit is a point of pride for Russia, and it is widely rumored that Putin will launch the event with a speech during the opening session of the meetings. 

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The decision to sit out the weeklong Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (FCTC) meetings is based on U.S. displeasure over Russia’s actions in eastern Ukraine in recent months, said Bill Hall, director of the news division at the Department of Health and Human Services.

It follows a slate of U.S. economic sanctions aimed at the Kremlin in the months since Russia annexed Crimea and threw its support behind pro-Russia separatists in eastern Ukraine.

“Given Russia’s ongoing violation of Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity, the U.S. government is suspending some activities with Russia and will not participate this year at the FCTC being held in Moscow later this month,” Hall said.

But the decision is creating angst among both public health groups and the U.S. tobacco industry. Both sides are worried that their interests won’t be represented, as participants consider updates to international standards involving tobacco and nicotine use, sales and taxation.

“There definitely is some concern,” said Chris Bostic, deputy director of policy for Action on Smoking and Health, a group that advocates for global tobacco controls. “It is a shame that they will not be there in person.”

The meetings will be the sixth held since the FCTC treaty was adopted in 2003, and the first skipped by the U.S. government.

The United States is not one of the 179 nations to ratify the treaty, which says it will protect public health “in response to the globalization of the tobacco epidemic.” As such, it is not legally binding in the United States.

In recognition of its importance, however, the U.S. signed the document in 2004 and has been allowed to take part in previous sessions, though American officials aren’t allowed to vote on changes to the agreement.

“They’re allowed to speak, and they're listened to,” said Roger Quarles, a former president of the International Tobacco Growers Association.

Several supporters of the treaty within the United States acknowledged that the optics of a lack of U.S. participation could be problematic, and lamented a lost opportunity to help shape global tobacco standards.

Paul Billings, senior vice president for advocacy and education at the American Lung Association said that by not ratifying the treaty over the last decade, the U.S. “has been principally on the sidelines” in the international debate.

“We think the treaty is a positive force,” he said. “The U.S. should be a part of this public health treaty.”

Industry and public health groups alike are keenly interested in this year’s agenda.

On the table are international standards for the fast-growing and largely unregulated electronic cigarette industry.

Details of a specific proposal have not been made public, however the WHO issued a report in late August calling for regulations to stop the marketing of e-cigarettes to children, minimize health risks and block the industry from making unsubstantiated health claims.

A provisional agenda also includes discussion of “price and tax measures to reduce the demand for tobacco,” an item that has the tobacco industry on edge.

Quarles, who also sits on the Kentucky Burley Tobacco Growers Cooperative (burley is a type of tobacco), pointed to reports indicating that a proposal to add a new 75 percent excise tax on cigarettes would be part of that discussion.

While the tax wouldn’t be levied on cigarettes sold in the United States, it would be devastating for the American tobacco industry, he said. Roughly 75 percent of burley grown in the U.S. — most of it in Kentucky and Tennessee — is exported.

A large tax, he said, could cause demand to plummet, costing jobs and damaging the economy. Meanwhile, he cited studies showing that higher prices for premium cigarettes don’t deter smoking, but rather cause smokers to turn to illicit brands.

Quarles said the industry is also concerned about calls to eliminate tobacco — which he notes is a legal trade commodity — from all international trade agreements.

He acknowledged that the industry’s relationship with the Obama administration is less than cozy. But he said its worries are nonetheless heightened by revelations that the United States will not be participating in the talks.

“I’ve got to conclude that they’re at least looking out for the laws that are on the books in the United States,” he said. “We’d feel much more comfortable if they were there to prevent a radical vote.”