It’s hard to believe, but only 16 years ago the CEOs of North America’s largest tobacco corporations were before Congress, swearing under oath that nicotine wasn’t addictive.

And 12 years ago, these same corporations were disclosing a half-century of lies and willful deception of the public about the harms of tobacco products. A 46-state master settlement compelled them to do so.

By 2005, the world’s first public health and corporate accountability treaty was taking effect to tackle the world’s leading preventable cause of death and disease: tobacco use.

That treaty may be the least well-known tobacco milestone here in the United States, but it’s the most significant. For one, the global tobacco treaty may save 200 million lives by 2050 when it’s fully implemented. It also tackles head-on the type of corporate abuse that hooked generations on a deadly product with little or no accountability.

Still, the road to the World Health Organization (WHO) treaty’s success isn’t paved with gold. In each of the 168 countries that have ratified it to date, Big Tobacco continues to interfere in and hinder implementation of the treaty’s lifesaving measures. And despite propelling the public health threat of tobacco onto the world stage, the U.S. remains among the shrinking minority of countries yet to ratify.

However, there’s much reason for optimism. In a few short years, treaty protections have extended to more than 86 percent of the world’s population. Strong new tobacco advertising, promotion, and sponsorship bans have consequently been enacted from Colombia to India. In each case, governments have overcome industry opposition and interference, emboldened by the widespread public support mobilized by Corporate Accountability International and our global partners.

Over the years, our allies have documented the range of tactics employed to compromise or block these new public health protections. Tobacco corporations have provided gifts to enforcement agencies, flown public officials around the globe on lavish junkets, and arranged for their representatives to be at the table when policies were being developed.

Fortunately the treaty is clear–the industry has “a fundamental and irreconcilable conflict of interest with public health” and interference in the treaty is beyond the law. Though Big Tobacco continues to ignore such treaty dictates until it gets caught…it’s getting caught. Governments have divested from tobacco corporations, removed tobacco lobbyists from policy advisory committees, and refused to participate in industry-sponsored events.

These activities probably unnerved past U.S. representatives to treaty meetings, who often aligned themselves with industry interests. Though tobacco control in the U.S. was having a measurable impact on public health, it was forcing our companies to more aggressively open new markets abroad. So what was good for the U.S., Bush administration officials were unwilling to get behind globally.

But the Obama administration, joined by a majority of Senate Republicans, seems to be steering a new course. With the passage this summer of a bill giving the Food and Drug Administration regulatory authority over the tobacco industry, the groundwork has been laid for U.S. ratification of the WHO treaty.

What’s more, advancing the treaty is in keeping with a national commitment to see health care reformed. Because even though the world’s poor are most affected, the U.S. is not beyond the epidemic. Each year, $96 billion is spent on public and private health-care expenses related to smoking. And smoking prevention and other preventative care is fundamental to the long-term efficacy of the health-care system at large.

More generally, President Obama has already embraced a number of treaty precedents by closing the revolving door between lobbyists and the executive branch, as well as by disclosing all executive meetings with private corporations. In echoing the sentiments of most Americans by opposing the Supreme Court ruling allowing unlimited corporate dollars to flow to political campaigns, he has aligned his administration with the spirit of this little-known treaty.

In these difficult times, when the conversation too often centers on how government isn’t working, the treaty provides a light at the end of the tunnel for those intent on seeing government work in the public interest, untainted by corporate self-interest.

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Kelle Louaillier

Kelle Louaillier is the executive director of Corporate Accountability International, a Boston-based grassroots watchdog organization.

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