Thank You for Not Smoking

How the WHO Fought Tobacco Through Treaties

Two cigarettes replacing the hands of a clock to remind customers of the upcoming smoking ban, are pictured in the Weisses Roessl restaurant in Hanau, 30km (19 miles) south of Frankfurt, March 22, 2007. Kai Pfaffenbach / Reuters

Our modern world is defined by connectivity. Today’s communication tools spread information from the depths of the Amazon to the farthest reaches of Central Asia to New York City within seconds. But such networks have not, on the whole, led to the standardization of international regulations and norms, which has given rise to ethical and practical dilemmas for multinational companies, governments, and international organizations. The international smoking epidemic provides one of the best illustrations of what that means in practice.

The transnational tobacco industry has used trade liberalization, foreign direct investment, and global communications to expand its markets to low- and middle-income countries where effective tobacco control programs are not in place.

The consequences are staggering. Tobacco-related deaths, a completely man-made epidemic, are the leading cause of preventable death in the world. In 2013 alone, tobacco killed nearly six million people. More than five million of those deaths resulted from direct tobacco use, whereas more than 600,000 were the result of nonsmokers being exposed to secondhand smoke.

As evidence of a growing pandemic first started to emerge in the late 1970s, a committed group of individuals and organizations sought to challenge the tobacco industry’s expansion and to control tobacco use. They used modern communication technologies and virtual networks to spread information, coordinate activities, and elicit responses from local, national, and international authorities. The global response included, in 2003, the first ever negotiation of a binding international law under the auspices of the World Health Organization—the WHO Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (FCTC).


Scientists in Germany first began making statistical correlations between cancer and smoking in the 1930s. In 1938, Raymond Pearl, a biologist at Johns Hopkins University, reported that smokers do not live as long as nonsmokers. In 1953, epidemiologist Ernst Wynder demonstrated that cigarette tar caused tumors on the backs of mice, and in the following year, physiologist Richard Doll and epidemiologist Bradford Hill published a study of British doctors that found that smokers had a greater risk of lung

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