This week, in Seoul, South Korea, government representatives from 176 United Nations (UN) member-states will meet to discuss proposals ostensibly aimed at curbing tobacco use worldwide. The reality is that what happens this week could affect tax rates in the United States (US) and abroad and establish a dangerous precedent by ceding taxation powers to an international organization without achieving the goal of smoking cessation.
The World Health Organization (WHO), a UN subsidiary, has long led the push for a global tobacco tax, funds from which would be earmarked for WHO funding. The proposal has major implications for the preservation of member-state sovereignty, the ability of the WHO to be held accountable, and the extent to which smoking is actually reduced.
By WHO’s own admission, there is not universal agreement on the effect of tax increases on smoking. According to the Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (FCTC), there are “substantial and sometimes conflicting” views amongst those 176 signatories about international proposals focused on using tax and price measures to reduce tobacco consumption.
However, what is clear is the WHO’s interest in pushing higher tobacco taxes within signatory states. Recently, the WHO was caught urging China, Cambodia and other Southeast Asian nations to increase their tobacco taxes, in line with FCTC benchmarks. These benchmarks include a 70 percent excise tax on cigarettes sold within FCTC signatory countries. Setting aside overt pursuit of a global tobacco tax that may occur this week, it is clear that the WHO has already been intruding on states’ sovereignty by lobbying for fiscal policies intended to be the exclusive purview of the signatories in question. The anticipated push for a global tobacco tax this week would involve further encroachments and downright trampling of sovereignty, should such a push be successful.
While the United States has not fully signed and ratified the FCTC, there should be concern for US leaders, as should the possibility of the WHO being given additional funding in a manner that threatens to make it less accountable than it is now.
At present, the WHO depends on the individual UN contributions of member-states to fund its activities. If a given activity is problematic, member-states can potentially adjust their contribution amount up or down.
However, if the WHO is able to establish its own independent funding source, with its budget being funded in part by earmarked global tobacco tax funds, the accountability to which the WHO is currently subject will be diminished. That could have disastrous effects in terms of global health policy, and further jeopardize the sovereignty of individual nations.