A World Health Organization panel on Tuesday removed members of the press and public from a meeting in Russia, then quickly adopted a recommendation calling for a huge tax hike on tobacco products around the world, one that would likely harm U.S. tobacco growers in Kentucky and North Carolina.
The WHO, which is the health division of the United Nations, is convening this week in Russia for the sixth meeting of the Conference of the Parties to the Framework Convention on Tobacco Control, or COP6. While the tax recommendation threatens sales of U.S.-grown tobacco around the world, U.S. officials were not present at the meeting.
On Monday, members of the public were also removed, after the panel had a quick discussion about why anyone from the public should be present. "I don't see the usefulness of having the public in these meetings," Libya's delegate said.
On Tuesday, members of the press were informed that they are part of the public, and were removed from the meeting. Then, the panel quickly adopted the tax language, also known as Article 6 — observers say it's unclear whether any details about how different countries voted will ever be made public.
While a WHO press official declined to say whether the vote had happened, other observers of the Russia meeting confirmed it took place, and various tweets from others confirmed the vote.
"Big step forward!" tweeted the World Lung Foundation. "Tax implementation guidelines — Art. 6 adopted by Com."
The World Lung Foundation tweeted later that the meeting was also discussing how to move tobacco farmers to alternative crops.
The WHO's tax recommendation is not binding, but the vote will give doctors groups, health groups and others leverage to press for higher taxes on cigarettes, which could build momentum for higher taxes around the world. The U.S. has not ratified the tobacco control convention, but more than 100 other countries have.
The WHO's specific proposal calls on countries to raise excise taxes on cigarettes to the point at which the excise tax accounts for at least 70 percent of the retail price of a pack of cigarettes. Economists say that would lead to price hikes above 100 percent in countries like India, China, Peru and Colombia.