State and Local Governments Can Lead the Way on More Than Climate Change

On June 1st, President Trump announced his decision to pull the United States out of the Paris Agreement, an international agreement designed to combat climate change. The outcry was immediate and intense. Numerous mayors and governors have declared their intentions to do what the federal government will not, and strive to meet the goals of the Paris Agreement. They’ve created or greatly expanded groups like the U.S. Climate Alliance (representing 12 states), the “Climate Mayors” (274 city leaders), and We Are Still In (1,219 governors, mayors, businesses, investors, and colleges and universities) that are committed to the agreement. Hawaii has already enacted legislation. The opposition has been widespread and well organized.

This is far from the first time that the United States has declared itself exempt from international accords. In fact, one very similar example immediately comes to mind.

What is it? Here are a few hints:

  • It’s horrible for the environment.
  • The rest of the world is taking action while the U.S. falls dangerously behind.
  • It is an international agreement that the U.S. negotiated, signed, but never ratified.

What is it? Tobacco.

Smoking is the leading cause of preventable death; it kills more than 7 million people a year worldwide. Tobacco is also killing the planet. Cigarettes harm the environment throughout their entire lifecycle, from causing up to 5% of the deforestation in developing countries to causing 110 billion pounds of packaging waste from ink, cardboard, paper, cellophane, and butts every year.

The United States is falling behind other countries in ending the tobacco epidemic, particularly within vulnerable groups. But most importantly, best practices exist that can help end the tobacco epidemic- the World Health Organization Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (FCTC), an international tobacco treaty and the world’s 1st public health treaty. The United States participated in all of the negotiations, it was among the countries that unanimously adopted the FCTC in 2003, signed it in 2004, but then did not ratify the FCTC and is therefore not a party and a full participant in this treaty.

The uprising of action by leaders of cities and states following the Paris decision is inspiring. Those same people could take action to get their jurisdictions to end the death and disease caused by tobacco, in some of the same ways.

States, counties, cities, and towns can do many things to end the tobacco epidemic, including raising the minimum legal age to 21, increasing tobacco taxes, and passing smoke free air laws.

Localities can also mirror some of the recent environmental actions through:

An Aspirational Commitment: A jurisdiction can pass a resolution in support of the Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (FCTC), the tobacco treaty. This is called symbolic ratification or an “aspirational commitment.” States, counties, cities, and towns have undertaken this type of resolution for several other international treaties, including the United Nations Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) and the Convention on the Rights of the Child, and some of the actions taken around the Paris Agreement are similar. While largely symbolic and not legally binding in international law, resolutions and proclamations offer an opportunity to articulate the valuable role of state and local governments in tobacco control and to emphasize that the standards set out in the FCTC are local priorities.

A Tobacco Free Future: Another option is to set a goal to reduce tobacco use to a very small prevalence rate by a certain date. Several countries have done this- Scotland (5% or less by 2034), Finland (2% or less by 2040), New Zealand (5% or less by 2025). A state, city, or town could set that goal and then take action to meet it.

The passion and enthusiasm that emerged at the state and local level to protect the environment are amazing. It is about time we took action; the environment is in a dire situation. And so is health due to tobacco.

Written in collaboration with ASH Staff Attorney Kelsey Romeo-Stuppy

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