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Jamaica: more tobacco, Despite FCTC

Going against trends in most of the rest of the world, especially among countries committed to implementing to the WHO’s Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (FCTC), Jamaica is increasing tobacco production. It is not just that the department of agriculture has decided to stimulate tobacco leaf growing, but recent events suggest a larger and more sinister trend. The most striking illustration of how little the Jamaican government seems to understand the tobacco problem and what the FCTC is all about is a notorious collaboration with Carreras Limited, local subsidiary of British American Tobacco (BAT), on a youth education programme.

When the government announced the proposed increase in leaf production, the Jamaica Coalition for Tobacco Control put out a press release pointing out that the move was in breach of the spirit of the FCTC, which Jamaica signed in 2003 and ratified in 2005. The press release included an open letter to Jamaica’s prime minister, addressing the government’s apparent disregard for the FCTC. Apart from the tobacco growing announcement and the education ministry’s collaboration with BAT on the youth education programme, Jamaica has still not initiated any significant implementation of the treaty. In addition, the coalition cited other examples of disturbing pro-tobacco signals coming from the government, such as the acceptance of direct financial support from BAT for repairing police vehicles.

The coalition, based at the country’s heart foundation, is part of the Caribbean tobacco control project, a four-country project (with Barbados, Guyana and Trinidad and Tobago) funded by the Bloomberg Global Initiative. It is an example of how competent non-government organisations are now at work in many areas where in the past, the industry often went unchallenged. And a challenge is obviously how BAT saw the coalition’s press release and letter. Within two days, its local corporate and regulatory affairs manager had written an article for the country’s leading daily newspaper, the Jamaica Gleaner, published below the supremely inappropriate and misleading headline, ‘Clearing the air on tobacco control.’

In addition to BAT’s predictable line on the expansion of tobacco production and the FCTC, the article reminded readers—as the company no doubt regularly reminds the government—of the company’s “almost 50-year involvement and support” for empowering people through education, civic and community life, arts, culture and the environment, and its “continued willingness to sit down with the government to discuss how the company can continue aligning its corporate social investments to areas of national priority.”

Following the publication of this large dose of classic tobacco-speak, the health coalition replied with what it diplomatically called a ‘clarification’ of key issues in the tobacco man’s article. In the meantime, however, the coalition’s open letter to the prime minister had been picked up by the US-based Corporate Accountability International (formerly known as Infact), one of whose major projects is tobacco control. It placed the letter on its website, asking supporters to sign a petition against increasing tobacco production, and to write to the Jamaican prime minister. More than 3000 people did just that, creating a volume of international pressure that evidently was neither unnoticed nor welcomed by the Jamaican administration.

Health advocates everywhere know that tobacco companies want to prevent the implementation of the FCTC, or if that proves impossible, to at least delay it for as long as possible, convincing evaluation, if it were needed, of the treaty’s potential. Has receipt of tobacco money, such as the police vehicle repair funds, been a significant factor in delaying action in some of the Caribbean countries? In a region with co-operation in many areas of government, why has legislation on smoking in public places been passed in Trinidad and Tobago, and Barbados, but not elsewhere? And why have none of the countries yet implemented the effective, comprehensive legislation covering all major aspects of tobacco control that the FCTC requires?

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