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ILO says tobacco funding halted, for now

The UN labour organisation has agreed not to renew controversial funding from tobacco companies for charitable programmes, but has left the door open to cooperating with the industry on future projects.

The International Labour Organization (ILO) Governing Body finally reached a compromise late Thursday on the issue of the UN agency’s ties to the tobacco industry, in a bid to end years of acrimonious debate on the issue.

The ILO has long been under fire for partnerships with several of the world’s biggest tobacco companies on charitable programmes in a range of countries, which expired last year.

The agency had justified its ties to the tobacco companies as a way of helping improve the working conditions of the some 60 million people involved in tobacco growing and production worldwide.

But it faced criticism that the partnerships risked jeopardising global efforts to regulate tobacco use and reduce the negative health impacts of smoking.

In the decade ending last year, the agency received more than $15 million (13.5 million euros) from tobacco companies towards two “charitable partnerships” aimed at reducing child labour in tobacco fields in four African countries.

But health and anti-tobacco advocates have been clamouring for the agency to join other UN agencies — most notably the World Health Organization — in flatly refusing to engage with the industry.

In November 2018, ILO decided it would not renew the tobacco company funding for the expiring programmes, but said it was looking into financing alternatives to ensure continued support to the communities in question.

On Thursday, the agency said its Governing Body had endorsed an “integrated strategy to address decent work deficits in the tobacco sector”, with a particular focus on the four countries where the programmes had been based.

It approved a vast three-year programme aimed at among other things assessing the working conditions in the sector, assisting countries in revising legislation and more effectively monitoring for child labour.

ILO said the programme would cost a total of $1.67 million per country, and that it should be financed by “voluntary contributions” from a range of sources, with some support from the ILO itself if needed.

But it acknowledged that it had not yet received any concrete donor pledges.

The decision, adopted by consensus, meanwhile did not explicitly preclude future ties with the tobacco industry, and interpretations varied greatly on what the decision actually entailed.

Corporate Accountability, a US-based civil society group, for instance celebrated the move, saying it “closes the tobacco industry’s last avenue of influence in the UN system”.

Nicholas McCoy, in charge of advocacy partnerships at ECLT, one of the expired charitable programmes funded by the likes of British-American Tobacco and Philip Morris International, meanwhile said that “language was not added to specifically halt” future tobacco funding.

“This leaves the door open,” he told AFP.