Switzerland: the land of the tobacco industry

A traditional agricultural event held in northeastern Switzerland, where children are allowed exceptionally to smoke. ENNIO LEANZA/Keystone

Although Switzerland – home to the three biggest tobacco firms – has not yet ratified the World Health Organization (WHO) Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (FCTCExternal link), the city of Geneva is hosting an important meeting this week on the treaty.

This content was published on October 3, 2018 - 17:42
Frédéric Burnand, Geneva,

In his first speech to the Geneva-based Human Rights Council last February, Swiss Foreign Affairs Minister Ignazio Cassis insisted on the importance of civil and political rights, highlighting economic freedom and the guarantee of private property for securing stability and peace.

This approach has helped contribute to Switzerland's success throughout its modern history, even if it may have meant leaving aside other rights in the Universal Declaration of Human RightsExternal link adopted 70 years ago, such as those concerning health.

Swiss legislation and attitudes towards tobacco and smoking is a perfect example of this approach. The alpine nation signed the FCTC in 2004, but 14 years later it remains one of 13 other countries that have not ratified it; the others are mainly tobacco-growing states, such as the United States, Argentina, Malawi and Cuba.

+ A graphic look at global smoking trends

Smoky parliament corridors

So, why haven’t the Swiss authorities ratified the FCTC? Daniel Dauwalder, spokesperson for the Federal Office of Public Health, explained to “In accordance with established practice, Switzerland ratifies international conventions only after having adapted national legislation that brings it into line with the convention. Ratification thus presupposes that Swiss legislation complies with certain minimum requirements defined by the convention, including the prohibition of sales to minors and advertising restrictions. However, this is not the case.”

He added: “A new bill has therefore been drafted along these lines, although it does not meet the basic requirements of the WHO Convention. This draft will be submitted to parliament at the end of the year. After the adoption of the law, the Federal Council will review whether the conditions for ratification of the Convention are met.”

A similar scenario has been repeated over the years. Each attempt by parliament to bring Swiss law into line with the WHO Convention comes up against a united front of parliamentarians committed to the cause of the tobacco industry.

Swiss HQ

Switzerland is an extremely important country for tobacco firms. The world's leading cigarette and tobacco manufacturer, Philip Morris InternationalExternal link, has its operational headquarters in the western city of Lausanne. It also has a research centre and a cigarette factory at Neuchâtel, and another facility at Spreitenbach in northern Switzerland. The number two global giant, British American Tobacco (BAT),External link has a strong presence in Lausanne and at cigarette factory at Boncourt, canton Jura, while Japan Tobacco International (JTRI) has its global headquarters in Geneva and a production site at Dagmersellen, in canton Lucerne.

According to a KPMG report from October 2017, tobacco companies contribute CHF6.3 billion ($6.4 billion) a year to the Swiss economy, employing 11,500 people.

Their heavy presence is partly explained by Swiss legislation, which is attractive to businesses and less restrictive than the European Union and the United States. The presence in Geneva of WHO, whose tobacco prevention policies the companies seek to influence – or even thwart – is also seen as a factor.

This policy of lobbying and influence is well known in the Swiss parliament. The “Temps Present” investigation “Careful – this parliament can damage your healthExternal link”, broadcast in September on Swiss Public Radio, RTS, revealed how several parliamentarians are active lobbyists for the tobacco firms pushing sophisticated strategies to combat the preventive measures recommended by the health community.

Open letter to the Swiss president

On Wednesday, a coalition of 106 international and Swiss non-governmental organisations published an open letter sent to President Alain Berset that urges Switzerland to ratify the FCTC “without delay”.

“We want to express our deep concern and disapproval with what is happening in Switzerland in terms of tobacco control,” said the coalition, led by the NGO Action on Smoke and Health (ASH). Tobacco is “an international problem with serious consequences for public health, human rights and economic development”, they added.

The NGOs criticise the Swiss draft bill on tobacco productsExternal link under consideration, which they say does not set any real objectives to lower the prevalence of smoking in Switzerland by 2060. The Federal Council is not doing its job to protect the population’s health and must adapt Swiss legislation in line with the WHO convention, they argue.

The head of the FCTC Secretariat, Vera Luiza da Costa e Silva, recently criticised Switzerland’s tobacco control treaty stance, saying that it was “more of a shame than a problem that Switzerland is not party to the treaty”.

Da Costa e Silva added that there was not sufficient political will in Switzerland to apply all measures in the treaty in the face of the tobacco industry present in the country.

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