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At the first Conference of the Parties in 2006, Parties agreed to start developing guidelines for the FCTC, starting with Article 8 on protection from exposure to tobacco smoke and Article 9 on tobacco product regulation. Five COP sessions later and there has been adoption of complete guidelines for Article 8 at COP2, followed by Articles 5.3, 11 and 13 at COP3, and Articles 12 and 14 at COP4. Even the guidelines on Article 6, with respect to tobacco taxation, a highly technical area, only took two sessions to complete and were adopted at COP6.

The approach adopted for guidelines on Articles 9 and 10, product regulation and disclosure, has been much more cautious, for good reason.

Regulation of the contents and emissions of tobacco products can be highly technical requiring sophisticated expertise, may be resource intensive and may risk of unintended consequences, depending on the nature of the regulation.

For these reasons by COP3 there were still no guidelines to be adopted and the working group was mandated to work gradually ‘in a step-by-step process’. The first partial 9 and 10 guidelines were adopted at COP4, and included disclosure and regulation of ingredients (such as flavours) and financing of regulation by the tobacco industry. At COP5 partial guidelines were adopted to reduce the fire risk of cigarettes (reduced ignition propensity).

At COP6 no further partial guidelines were adopted, but COP agreed to mandate the working group to “continue its work in elaborating guidelines in a step-by-step process, and to submit draft partial guidelines or a progress report on the disclosure, testing and measuring of contents and emissions to the next session of the COP”.

Work is still underway on the independent validation of analytical methods with help from WHO, and its expert groups TobReg and TobLabNet. At COP7 partial guidelines are being put forward for adoption on disclosure and design features which increase attractiveness.

This cautious approach to tobacco product regulation is justified by past experience, which has caused serious detriment to public health. The notable example of such failure is ‘low tar’ cigarettes, often called ‘light’ or ‘mild’, introduced by the tobacco industry to counter growing concerns about the health risks of smoking, by promoting supposedly less harmful cigarettes. What the tobacco industry knew, but public health experts took many years to realise, was that they were no less harmful.

Smokers were compensating by smoking so called ‘low tar’ cigarettes harder, allowing more carcinogens to go deeper into the lungs.

Yet the myth of ‘low tar’ continues to reverberate with smokers around the world. Although the FCTC requires a ban on misleading packaging and makes specific reference to terms like ‘low tar’, ‘light’ and ‘mild’, alternative ways of promoting low tar cigarettes through lighter pack colours and other names like ‘smooth’ have emerged.

According to Euromonitor sales of light and ultra-low tar cigarettes continued to grow after the FCTC was adopted, from 423 billion in 1998 to 756 billion in 2008.

An idea receiving more discussion in tobacco product regulation is reducing the addictiveness of cigarettes by reducing nicotine to very low levels. In the US, extensive research is ongoing on this issue. However, prior experiences with regulating nicotine emissions have demonstrated the importance of fully understanding the science and the benefit of regulatory experience in developing international guidelines. Any guideline proposal to regulate the content of nicotine needs to be based on sound science, including the potential for industry manipulation and unintended consequences. At present, no government has implemented a specific approach on nicotine reduction that could provide the basis for international guidelines.

Guidelines for nicotine reduction were discussed at the Article 9 & 10 working group meeting earlier this year. However, many Parties were of the view that such international guidelines would be premature until there is country level experience in implementation of such a policy. FCA agrees with this perspective and urges the COP to wait until there is successful country regulatory experience to draw on before proceeding any further with the development and adoption of guidelines on this issue.

Deborah Arnott,
Action on Smoking and Health

Rob Cunningham,
Canadian Cancer Society

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