The United Nations is meeting under Vladimir Putin’s watchful eye — but outside the public’s — to build support for higher tobacco taxes and cigarette advertising bans.
The sixth conference of the World Health Organization’s Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (FCTC) kicked off in Moscow Monday. One of its first acts was to vote to ban the public from intergovernmental discussions, claiming spectators were really tobacco industry interlopers.
While the goal of reducing smoking is popular, the week-long event has nevertheless aroused controversy. One reason is the venue. The United States and Canada have both boycotted the conference to protest Russian incursions into Ukraine. Canada tightly regulates tobacco products.
In a statement to The Hill earlier this month, the Department of Health and Human Services directly attributed U.S. nonparticipation to “Russia’s ongoing violation of Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity.”
Freedom House’s Dave Kramer told The Washington Post, “Now is not the time to be holding any international gatherings in Moscow.” Critics fear the WHO event will hand Putin a propaganda victory at a time when some Western leaders are trying to isolate him diplomatically.
Observers on the ground in Moscow have already complained about a lack of transparency surrounding the event. “Wow: The UN/WHO tobacco meeting in Russia is about to vote to kick out the public — even though taxpayers paid for the meeting,” reported Washington Times columnist Drew Johnson.
The World Lung Foundation’s Twitter account described the people removed as “tobacco industry reps pretending to be members of the public.”
“I’ve been called the enemy number one of the tobacco industry, it is a badge of honour for me,” said WHO Director-General Margaret Chan, according to media accounts. “Giving any tobacco company a place at the negotiating table is like appointing a committee of foxes to take care of your chickens.”
Prior to the conference, critics warned about public health bureaucrats designing tax policy with little input from economists or the tobacco industry. Heavy tobacco taxation is one of the more hotly debated substantive agenda items.
While attendees will be discussing ways to crack down on the illicit tobacco trade, high taxes have resulted in black markets even in advanced economies like the United States. New York is now the highest net importer of smuggled cigarettes in the country, with illicit products now making up 57 percent of the cigarette market.
New York State currently taxes cigarettes at about $4.50 a pack, with New York City tacking on an additional $1.50. In 2012, the WHO discussed a cigarette tax rate as high as 70 percent.
The economist Arthur Laffer, whose “Laffer Curve” guided the Reagan tax cuts of the 1980s, has argued that tobacco taxes can become counterproductive if raised too high.
“Once tax levels are in the prohibitive range of the Laffer Curve, tax revenues will fall, and if consumers shift to lower taxed or black market tobacco products, it may not even lead to less smoking,” Laffer has written.
The Moscow conference will also take up restrictions on advertising tobacco products and new regulations on tobacco-free e-cigarettes.
The FCTC is legally binding on the 179 countries that have ratified the treaty, but the United States is not among them.
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