On April 5, the O’Neill Institute, in collaboration with Fundacion InterAmericana del Corazon Argentina (FIC Argentina) and Action on Smoking and Health (ASH), participated in a hearing before the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (the Commission) on the “Right to Health and Tobacco Addiction in the Americas”. It was the first time that the Commission considered the intersection of tobacco control, non-communicable diseases, and human rights.
During the hearing, the representatives of the three organizations stressed that the tobacco epidemic has become one of the world’s gravest public health concerns. Globally, six million people die each year from tobacco use, including one million people in the Americas. Moreover, the health consequences of the tobacco epidemic, including tobacco-related diseases, disproportionately affect women, children, and marginalized populations, due in large part to the tobacco industry’s efforts to aggressively market cigarettes to those populations. Failure to implement tobacco control measures, consequently, results in violations of people’s human rights, particularly their rights to health and life.
The O’Neill Institute, FIC Argentina, and ASH noted that the international community has begun to make the connection between tobacco control, non-communicable diseases, and human rights. The World Health Organization’s Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (FCTC), for example, sets forth minimum standards for measures that governments must implement to reduce the harmful effects of tobacco products. Treaty monitoring bodies (e.g., the Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women, etc.), moreover, have recognized that tobacco control is an integral component in the protection of the right to health.
In accordance with their human rights obligations, countries throughout the Americas have taken steps to regulate tobacco use through tax initiatives, education and awareness strategies, packaging and labeling requirements, smoke-free air regulations, and marketing restrictions. However, according to the representatives of the three organizations, the tobacco industry has struck back. It has brought numerous domestic suits against governments in the region, alleging that the regulation of tobacco violates the tobacco industry’s rights to freedom of expression, enterprise, and property, as well as an individual’s purported “right to smoke”.
Overcoming these obstacles, as well as others that interfere with governments’ ability to effectively implement tobacco control measures, requires a multidisciplinary approach, including actions at national, regional, and international levels. At the hearing, the representatives of the three organizations stressed that the Commission has a key role to play at the regional level, highlighting some of the concrete ways in which it can support governments in the region in their efforts to comply with their tobacco control-related human rights obligations.