The human rights dimension of tobacco control: a tool to advance the WHO FCTC implementation

“A better understanding of how tobacco control and human rights interact means a better understanding of our abilities to strengthen the WHO FCTC implementation.” Dr. Vera Luiza da Costa e Silva, Head of the Secretariat of the WHO FCTC

Secretariat of the WHO FCTC

The objective of the WHO Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (WHO FCTC) is non-equivocal: to protect present and future generations from the devastating health, social, environmental and economic consequences of tobacco consumption and exposure to tobacco smoke. As relevant now as when the WHO FCTC was adopted, this objective finds translation in the language of human rights.

Indisputably, the WHO FCTC is first and foremost “an evidence-based treaty that reaffirms the right of all people to the highest standard of health”. In light of the right to health, three of the core international human rights instruments - the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women and the Convention on the Rights of the Child - are recalled in the Preamble and reflected in the spirit of the WHO FCTC. However, a broader human rights message finds echo in the WHO FCTC provisions and can constitute a powerful engine to advance the tobacco control agenda.

WHO reports that tobacco use and exposure to second-hand smoke kills more than 7 million people each year. By seeking to tackle the tobacco epidemic, the WHO FCTC is not only a tool to combat the adverse effects of tobacco on the right to health, but also to protect the very human right to life.

Measures for the protection from exposure to tobacco smoke, as proposed in Article 8, go hand in hand with the right of everyone to safe working conditions and a healthy environment, while those that relate to informing every person about the health consequences, addictive nature and mortal threat posed by tobacco consumption and exposure to tobacco smoke, as articulated in Article 4 and further backed by Articles 10, 11 and 12, communicate directly with the right to information.

The WHO FCTC is vocal about the gender dimension of tobacco control and sensitive to the vulnerability of children in the face of the tobacco threat. Against a background of shifting societal norms, successfully exploited by the tobacco industry, and the heavy burden of second-hand smoke on women, inclusive and gender-specific tobacco control strategies both draw on, and contribute to women’s rights. Countering the employment of children in the tobacco industry as well as redirecting household revenue drained by tobacco use towards a child’s wellbeing are ways to remove barriers to the realization of the rights of the child, including to an adequate standard of living and education.

“Recognizing and being able to raise awareness about the human rights dimension of tobacco control should allow us to broaden the WHO FCTC community beyond traditional stakeholders. Concerted action is key to shaping an enabling environment for the WHO FCTC implementation.” said Dr. Vera Luiza da Costa e Silva, Head of the Secretariat of the WHO FCTC at the Global Forum on Human Rights and a Tobacco-Free World, held in Bucharest on 26 March, under the auspices of the Presidential Administration of Romania. The forum, co-organized by Action on Smoking and Health, the European Network for Smoking and Tobacco Prevention and Healthy Romania Generation 2035 Association, brought together global leaders in human rights and public health to discuss ways to advance worldwide efforts to combat the tobacco epidemic.

As reported to the eighth session of the Conference of the Parties (COP), the Secretariat of the WHO FCTC is increasing synergies with human rights fora. These efforts come as a response to a decision adopted by the COP at its seventh session, inviting the Secretariat to collaborate with business and human rights mechanisms and processes within the UN, to protect public health interests from the commercial and other vested interests of the tobacco industry.

In the Sustainable Development Goals era, breaking silos between stakeholders is a must to achieve an agenda in which all targets are closely interrelated. The WHO FCTC is not only directly relevant to Target 3.A but also to a range of other goals, of all which, as the 2030 Agenda recalls, seek to realize the human rights of all.