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For the past few years, the global tobacco control community has been actively involved in efforts to get the International Labour Organisation (ILO) permanently stop its financial ties with the tobacco industry. These efforts have finally paid off as on Thursday October 31, 2019, the ILO Governing Body, meeting at its 337th session in Geneva, validated an integrated strategy to address decent work deficits in the tobacco sector, without funding from the tobacco industry.

No tobacco industry relationship with the UN

In 2016 the United Nations issued the model policy on preventing tobacco industry interference highlighting several measures to ensure that efforts to protect tobacco control from the commercial and other vested interests of the tobacco industry are comprehensive, effective and consistent across the United Nations system (the UN and its funds, programmes, specialized agencies, other entities and related organizations).

Specifically, the policy includes measures such as rejecting partnerships, joint programs, nonbinding or nonenforceable agreements, and other voluntary arrangements with the tobacco industry; not granting the industry permission to use U.N. entities’ names, logos, and emblems; and avoiding conflicts of interest by not accepting payments, gifts, services, hospitality, and research funding offered by the tobacco industry.

The ILO and Big Tobacco

The ILO was the only UN agency to maintain links with tobacco companies, after the October 2017 decision of the UN Global Compact (UNGC) to sever direct ties with the tobacco industry.1

In an open letter published on October 30, 2019 to the ILO Director General and Government Members of the 337th Session of the ILO’s Governing Body, global tobacco control organisations stated that British American Tobacco, Japan Tobacco International, and Philip Morris International, among others have targeted the ILO as part of a global effort to rehabilitate their image. In the past decade they have given the ILO about USD 15 million to mask the USD 12 trillion they have cost to global development.

Such so-called corporate social responsibility (CSR) funds according to the letter, are meant to divert attention from the fact that tobacco production and consumption hinders progress towards the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), claiming at least 8 million lives annually and leaving behind a devastating trail of social, economic, environmental and health harms.

Detaching the ILO from the tobacco industry

Several efforts have been made in the past to get the ILO to sever ties with the tobacco industry. Prior to the October 2019 letter to the ILO, an open letter to members of the organisation’s Governing Body published on September 29, 2017 had tobacco workers demanding that the ILO stops its cooperation with Big Tobacco.

Also, on 16 October 2017, 154 public health and civil society organizations called on the ILO to end its Public-Private Partnerships (PPPs) with tobacco companies and their allies. However, due to extenuating circumstances, the ILO Governing Body postponed the decision three times (March 2017, November 2017 and March 2018).

In November 2018, following another global call and pressure, the ILO Governing Body at its 334th Session demanded the Director General to organize a tripartite meeting as a matter of urgency, to promote an exchange of views on the further development and implementation of an integrated strategy to address decent work deficits in the tobacco sector.

That meeting was held from July 3-5 2019 in Kampala, Uganda and witnessed heavy lobbying by the tobacco industry for funding ties to be maintained. Thanks to pressure from the tobacco control community, however, recommendations from the meeting have now led to the decision of the ILO cutting ties once and for all with the tobacco industry.

This article originally appeared at the Africa Tobacco Control Alliance (ATCA) website


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