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Tobacco Monitoring First Step To Increased Sin Industry Scrutiny

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Using the image of a puppet pulled by strings from above by a mysterious figure, the World Health Organization is pulling out all the stops in its effort to turn public opinion against the tobacco industry.

The oft-used trope is a popular one in modern conspiracy theories, that of the puppet master behind the scenes controlling world affairs -- or in this case, popular opinion.

This image is part of the WHO campaign to launch "monitoring centres" in cities across the world, tasked with unmasking the tactics of the tobacco industry and its attempts to "interfere" with public health policy.

"These new units are the watchtowers of the public health movement, helping us to see the tobacco-control landscape in greater detail," said Dr. Vera da Costa e Silva, the head of the secretariat of the World Health Organization's Framework Convention on Tobacco Control.

She announced the new monitoring centres in Rio de Janeiro to much pomp and circumstance at the end of March, foreshadowing the opening of dozens of more in the coming months and those that will focus on much more than just the tobacco industry.

"They will communicate with professionals at the national level, but they also have an international function in communicating with one another to create a global tapestry describing the behaviour of the tobacco industry across continents," she proclaimed.

The Brazilian Observatory at Fundação Oswaldo Cruz (FIOCRUZ), the first of these centres, has already set its sights on the tobacco industry in the powerful developing country.

"The tobacco industry requires constant monitoring of its power and restrictive legal treatment because it brings no social or economic benefit to the country," said Silvana Turci, a researcher at the observatory.

But the tobacco industry is not the only target.

Indeed, the scope of the first monitoring centre's mission is being finely tuned in order to focus on the sugar and fat industries as well.

"It will also serve as a model to monitor the actions of other industries, such as processed ​​food, alcoholic and soft drinks, considering that there are undeniable similarities between the strategies used by all these companies in order to undermine public policies," states the observatory's website.

The World Health Organization is ensuring this remains a top priority in its aim to monitor international public health.

"We must understand the ways in which the industry does this. How does it operate -- what is its strategy and what are its tactics? How far is it willing to go? And does it operate different approaches in different parts of the world?" said Dr. da Costa e Silva.

Thus far, the monitoring centres aim to create "wiki" systems in order to track and disseminate the information gathered from their campaigns. An example was put together by the Tobacco Control Research Group at the University of Bath, calling attention to the individuals and institutions "promoting a pro-tobacco agenda."

Such efforts are being funded in order to implement the WHO Framework Convention of Tobacco Control, implemented by the Conference of the Parties held in Moscow in October 2014. It was made up of representatives from practically every country in the world, and remains closed only to participating parties and select governmental and non-governmental organizations.

The next Conference of the Parties is set to take place in New Delhi India in November 2016, where the next level of global tobacco regulation is due to be agreed upon.

The goal of the conference is to advance the "work of the WHO FCTC, thereby strengthening the global battle against the devastating consequences of tobacco use," according to the website.

Actions taken within this forum are not subject to democratic appraisal and have generally bypassed national legislatures. At present there is no mechanism or body by which to challenge the outcomes of the Conference of the Parties' agreement. That may be a troubling trend for democracy and the rule of law.

In the meantime, the World Health Organization will continue investing in monitoring centres to counteract the "darkness" of sin industries such as tobacco, sugar, alcohol and processed foods.

"Brazil's observatory exists to help us better understand what the industry is doing," added Dr. da Costa e Silva. "It's an important link in our new global chain, and helps us see into areas that were previously covered by darkness, the darkness that the tobacco industry prefers and embraces."

Yaël Ossowski is a Canadian journalist living in Vienna, Austria. He is currently a program director for Students For Liberty.

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