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Brazil played a major leadership role during the negotiations of the World Health Organization’s Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (WHO FCTC). Since the mid 1990s, the country’s national tobacco control policy has gained impetus, and the latest household based survey shows that regular adult (15+) smoking is declining, with current overall prevalence estimated at 19%. Brazil signed the WHO FCTC in June 2003 and despite its significant tobacco growing, manufacture, and exports, it was expected to ratify. However, ratification is proving to be a bumpier road to travel.
In May 2004, Congress approved FCTC ratification, with the text being sent to the Senate’s external affairs committee for consideration and approval, but a move to give it priority was halted at the request of a Senator who represents the southern region where the majority of Brazil’s tobacco is grown. He said his request was based on the desire to carefully consider the situation of the growers. It was made after he met officials of Afubra, the Brazilian member (and one of the founders) of the International Tobacco Growers Association, whose links with the multinational tobacco companies are well established.
It was then announced that the Senate would call for a public hearing on the matter, but in the meantime Afubra launched a survey on its website, which asked for people’s opinion on “WHO’s proposal to eradicate tobacco”. Interestingly, 41.5% of initial respondents were in favour, with only 34.5% against; 15.2% suggested viable alternatives should be found, and 4% advocated consensus through dialogue. It is unclear whether such a favourable response can be attributed to tobacco control advocates’ voting on the site, as part of their efforts to support ratification.
Afubra has run ads and generated press reports of its arguments in regional and national news media. With few exceptions, coverage of the WHO FCTC has repeated the line taken by majority manufacturer Souza Cruz, Brazilian subsidiary of British American Tobacco, and Afubra itself. In addition to emphasising the economic benefits of tobacco, the arguments have ranged from the misleading to the absurd. Many included personal accounts of tobacco growers, saying they would have no means of survival without tobacco—“eradication” and 2.5 million job losses, a mass rural exodus on a scale never seen before, and the imminent demise of the small rural farmer have been added to the familiar reiteration of the billions of dollars of tax generated by tobacco.
At the end of August, the Senate committee issued its opinion, in favour of ratification. However, the chamber of tobacco production, a quasi-independent but industry dominated body under the Ministry of Agriculture, called for delaying the decision until after municipal elections in October, and distributed information packs to Senators, as well as to the ministers of Agriculture, Health, Foreign Affairs, and Commerce. It also scheduled meetings with the governors of tobacco growing states. In September, members of an Afubra delegation at a technical exchange meeting in China praised their hosts for not worrying about “anti-tobacco” campaigns. According to Afubra’s president, Chinese officials asked him to intervene with the Brazilian Embassy, to ensure that Brazil did not ratify, given that China “will not ratify this document”.
When the Senate public hearing took place in September, with only one week’s notice and reportedly fixed at the request of the tobacco lobby, six invited speakers argued for ratification, and six against. Despite the efforts of government and non-governmental groups to make clear that ratification would not mean an immediate end to tobacco production, and a very strong statement by the Minister of Health at the hearings, ratification was postponed without a new date being set for reconsideration by the Senate. According to media reports, the outcome of the public hearing was known before it took place, and the industry side spoke of the need to “educate” policymakers.
Public health professionals and others pressing for ratification in other tobacco growing countries need to be prepared for how the industry will use scare tactics and misrepresent the impact of the WHO FCTC on short and medium term tobacco production. The tobacco lobby’s emphasis on the families that depend on tobacco, on the “immediate” end of all growing and production, the supposed call for tobacco “eradication” and the major economic loss and social unrest that would follow ratification, although completely unsubstantiated, grabbed the headlines in Brazil, and was effective in postponing the discussions. Health advocates in Brazil are busy countering this misinformation to ensure that health, not tobacco, wins the ratification debate at the earliest opportunity.