The Convention Secretariat recognizes the wealth of expertise and knowledge within civil society organizations

ENSP interview with the Head of the Secretariat of the WHO – FCTC, Dr Adriana Blanco Marquizo

I. Challenges during a pandemic

1. What are the greatest challenges faced by the WHO-FCTC Secretariat in the current situation generated by COVID pandemic?

The first and biggest challenge that we have faced was the need to postpone until next year the Ninth Session of the Conference of the Parties (COP9) to the WHO Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (WHO FCTC) and the Second Session of the Meeting of the Parties (MOP2) to the Protocol to Eliminate Illicit Trade in Tobacco Products. This is especially challenging in the case of MOP2 as many decisions need to be taken in order to continue work developing the basic infrastructure required by the Protocol.

Furthermore, given how long it seems the global COVID-19 pandemic will continue, another key concern is whether it will be feasible to hold a face-to-face meeting of the governing bodies in the format that we have been accustomed.

Also, the disruption caused by the pandemic to our usual way of working (travel, organizing meetings and missions to countries) has also meant that we have had to quickly develop skills in using digital technology and information and communications tools and software applications to enable us to continue to carry out our work and mandates through virtual means. Given the ever-changing epidemiologic situation, this also has affected the ability to work in the office, with almost the entire team in Geneva teleworking. This situation has meant additional challenges for the new Head of the Secretariat who began work in March of this year, with the lockdown beginning just two weeks after she began work.

International travel restrictions have meant all face-to-face meetings of subsidiary bodies, such as working groups, have had to take place virtually, including meetings of the Bureaus for the Conference of the Parties (COP) and the Meeting of the Parties (MOP). It has been more difficult in the current circumstances for the Convention Secretariat to deliver technical assistance, especially through its FCTC 2030 development assistance project. Thankfully, we have managed to adapt and have had some activities, such as a recent needs assessment in Armenia, conducted virtually, which is a first for the Secretariat.

There is also a concern that Parties will shift their focus and resources to tackling the pandemic, thus putting tobacco control aside; although thankfully we have seen some positive progress in implementation of the Convention this year. We also have even seen a new Party, Andorra, ratify the Convention in May.

The economic repercussions of the pandemic might affect ability of Parties to meet their obligations with regard to assessed contributions. Also, the ability of the Secretariat to mobilize extrabudgetary resources during these challenging times will be difficult.

II.   Collaboration with nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) in Europe

1.  What role do you think civil society, and more specifically civil society in Europe, could play in WHO FCTC implementation at national, regional and global levels?

First of all, let’s remember that the civil society’s role is spelled out in the text of the WHO FCTC in several places, specifically:

  • Emphasizing the special contribution of NGOs and other members of civil society not affiliated with the tobacco industry, including health professional bodies; women’s, youth, environmental and consumer groups; and academic and health-care institutions, to tobacco control efforts nationally and internationally and the vital importance of their participation in national and international tobacco control efforts (Preamble); and
  • The participation of civil society is essential in achieving the objective of the Convention and its protocols (Article 4.7).

The role of civil society is also underlined in the second strategic target of the Global Strategy to Accelerate Tobacco Control 2019–2025.

Civil society also plays an important and complementary role in matters related to research, industry (tobacco and others) monitoring, whistle-blowing, communications, support and advocacy. In addition, civil society has highlighted issues related to the Parties’ obligations in implementing the Convention, including time-bound measures and enforcement.

Within the 53 Parties in the WHO European Region, we see a gap between efforts in some leading Parties and other Parties where implementation of the Convention is very weak. Specific tailored assistance and support could be provided to those Parties by civil society organizations, in line with government commitments, the national context and the political situation. Civil society can and should use their specific insight and knowledge of the local landscape to work with specific Parties at local, national and regional levels, providing tailored assistance as and when needed.

2.  The WHO FCTC mobilized and strengthened collaboration between health and non- health sectors and engagement with civil society organizations, can you tell us in which areas this collaboration had an impact on Convention implementation in general?

In the areas of taxation, packaging (more specifically plain packaging), advertising and illicit trade, strong collaboration between health and non-health (including departments of trade and finance, among others), as well as advocacy by civil society, has been shown to be effective and successful. The implementation of the FCTC 2030 project for example (now in 24 selected Parties) also has demonstrated examples of enhanced collaboration and engagement between health and non-health sectors in those Parties, as well with other United Nations agencies, such as the United Nations Development Programme, and civil society.

The entrance into force of the Protocol to Eliminate Illicit Trade in Tobacco Products has also enabled engagement with non-health sectors such as finance, customs and justice in helping to promote and raise awareness about the Protocol (and Article 15 of the Convention).

Recently, the Convention Secretariat has held bilateral discussions with a range of treaty secretariats namely the Basel, Rotterdam and Stockholm Conventions, the International Plant Protection Convention, the Ramsar Convention, the United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification, and the Secretariat of the Joint United Nations Economic Commission for Europe–WHO/Europe Protocol on Water and Health with the intention of seeking some collaboration on areas of common interest.

3.  At the last (virtual) informal meeting with NGO observers to the COP in June 2020, you highlighted the importance of the work of NGOs and emphasized the need for closer collaboration between the Convention Secretariat and NGOs. How do you see that “closer collaboration” materializing in the near future?

To begin with, as requested by the NGOs during that meeting, the Secretariat will convene two informal virtual meetings per year as well as individual consultations with NGOs on specific areas, upon the NGO requests or Parties’ needs.

The Convention Secretariat recognizes the wealth of expertise and knowledge within civil society organizations, for example but not limited to, in the domain of taxation, economics, tobacco cessation, litigation and legal matters and tobacco-free investments, and believes that further exchanges of information will be vital to a greater success of the implementation of the Convention and the Protocol.

Taking into account that the Secretariat is very much bound to its mandates, through COP decisions, NGOs with observer status to the COP can bridge potential gaps, especially for assistance to Parties, communication and dissemination of information, conducting research and providing evidence-based data.

4.  Parties in Europe are often held as good examples (i.e. The United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, Ireland, France, etc.) when it comes to implementing the WHO FCTC. However, there are great inequalities and disparities among the 53 European Parties. The European Network for Smoking and Tobacco Prevention (ENSP) and other international NGOs based in Europe are working hard to bridge the gap. Does the Secretariat have a plan to work with us, European NGOs, in bridging that gap between the best-performing Parties and the most-challenging ones?

Even though the Convention Secretariat does not work directly with NGOs, as the role of the Secretariat is to provide assistance to the Parties, the Secretariat could provide information and guidance to NGOs with observer status, upon their request, and try to include some of them, when possible, in activities that can help to build capacity for those NGOs.

5.  What role do you see NGOs playing in the implementation of the Protocol?

NGO participation in the development of the Protocol has been critical. While governments continue to hold the principal position of decision-making in international lawmaking, NGOs have been actively working to shape and influence this process at local, national and regional levels.

The Secretariat would encourage NGOs to apply for observer status to the MOP since having observer status at the COP does not provide observer status to the MOP. There is a need for a separate application (Please see link: This will allow NGOs to become involved in various meetings, such as regional pre-COP and pre-MOP meetings, expert/working groups, and, of course, COP9 and MOP2. Civil society can also help the process by bringing top experts to specific technical fields such as economics, tracking and tracing and legal matters. They can also assist Parties with technical briefings and information dissemination, and they can help promote the Protocol outside the health sector through intergovernmental/multisectoral networks.

Of course, as they have done for the Convention, the civil society can also organize capacity-building training/sessions for Parties and stakeholders to assist implementation or ratification of the Protocol.

III.   Preparing for COP9 and MOP2

1. From the WHO FCTC Secretariat point of view, what are the priorities to be focused on and need greater effort during COP9/MOP2? Are there any particular issues that you anticipate will generate lengthy discussions among Parties?

There is not too much that the Secretariat can do regarding the issues to be discussed since the agenda is largely driven by the Parties. For COP9, some key issues to be discussed include Article 5.3, novel and emerging tobacco and nicotine products, Articles 9 and 10, Article 13 and the proposed Investment Fund. For the MOP, some important issues that need to be discussed include the Protocol implementation assistance strategy, cooperation with competent international intergovernmental organizations and international and regional NGOs, including financial and development institutions, and of course progress of the working group on tracking and tracing systems, including the global information sharing focal point.

One important thing to keep in mind during these difficult times is the need to make clear that tobacco control remains a crucial issue, during and after the pandemic, as tobacco is not only a health problem but also a development issue. Additionally, the tobacco industry keeps reinventing itself in an effort to keep populations buying their products at the cost of people’s health and pockets.

2. In your opinion, how can ENSP (and other NGOs) be supportive, and what kind of help ENSP can provide, before, during and after COP9/MOP2?

Adopted at the last session of the COP, the Global Strategy to Accelerate Tobacco Control: Advancing Sustainable Development through Implementation of the WHO FCTC 2019– 2025 should be utilized by Parties as a guide in setting national priorities and programmes and plans. The Global Strategy envisions increased participation of NGOs in the implementation of the WHO FCTC, and ENSP may increase the reach of this message and support Parties by including the Global Strategy in their planning for tobacco control activities.

Also, civil society in general and ENSP in particular may request observer status to other United Nations agency governing bodies that may have relationship with the WHO FCTC or the Protocol. Civil society can also assist seeing that countries include tobacco control in other development agendas at the country level.

Last but not least, NGOs may help Parties in the reporting process. They may reach out to the entities responsible for the preparation of Party reports and provide information to be used in the reports. Ideally, NGOs should participate in the elaboration of the country report, either as part of the national coordinating mechanism or otherwise, for example, ad-hoc arrangements made for the compilation of data and drafting of the country report.

IV.   Looking at the future

1.  What is WHO FCTC Secretariat doing to support the Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) Target 3.a: Strengthen the implementation of the WHO Framework Convention on Tobacco Control in all countries, as appropriate?

Let’s be clear, SDG Target 3.a is what the Secretariat does, since the target requires strengthening of the implementation of the WHO FCTC.

Regarding the reporting of SDG Target 3.a, the Secretariat has been working closely with the tobacco control focal points and has developed a Guide for WHO FCTC Parties on including SDG Target 3.a in Voluntary National Reviews that aims to help Parties to the WHO FCTC to include, reference and report on the implementation of SDG Target 3.a in their voluntary national reviews.

Furthermore, the Secretariat has been organizing and participating in various high-level events and webinars to inform and create awareness about the integrating SDG Target 3.a into global SDG agendas through WHO FCTC implementation.

One of these sessions took place during the 2020 ECOSOC High-level Political Forum. Another session took place during the General Assembly of the United Nations in October 2020.

In addition, the Secretariat has been actively creating awareness through editorial content in various magazines and newsletters, as well as social media networks, about the importance of implementing the WHO FCTC to achieve SDG Target 3.a.

2.  What is the progress regarding the Global Strategy?

An indicator compendium for indicators in the Global Strategy to Accelerate Tobacco Control: Advancing Sustainable Development through Implementation of the WHO FCTC 2019–2025 has been developed and is available at: or directly at: s-2025/GS-2025_Indicator-Compendium.pdf.

A report on the baseline data for Global Strategy indicators will form part of the next Global Progress Report on Implementation of the WHO Framework Convention on Tobacco Control, to be published in the first half of 2021.

A communications plan for the Global Strategy is being developed and will be implemented this biennium.

3.  Is there any established mechanisms by WHO FCTC Secretariat to support countries at the national level for the Protocol implementation/coordination among agencies/ministries?

The Secretariat of the WHO FCTC is preparing a series of webinars related to the Protocol, and through the tobacco control focal points the Secretariat offers support and guidance for Parties and non-Parties to Protocol implementation.

Also, the Secretariat has been cooperating and communicating with other United Nations agencies, such as the United Nations Office on Crime and Drugs.

Through the FCTC 2030 project, the Secretariat is working closely with some ministries and parliamentarians to assess the 24 Parties that receive support through the project.

4.  At the moment, the Protocol counts 62 Parties. What role do you see for NGOs in supporting Parties to ratify the Protocol?

As mentioned in Part II, Question 5: Dissemination of information, capacity-building sessions for governments and stakeholders, technical briefings to be used by governments and convening experts on areas within the Protocol ensure that the tobacco industry is kept out of meetings/discussions related to implementation of the protocol (for example, tracking and tracing) at local, national and regional levels.

5.  Finally, ENSP was organizing an annual International Conference on Tobacco Control in 2020, which had to be as were the COP and MOP. However, there are now plans for a June 2021 meeting. Every year, it attracts over 700 participants from European countries but also from other regions, including Australia, Brazil, Japan, the United States of America and other countries. The participants are not only from civil society but include representatives of governments. Are there any particular areas or burning issues you believe should be featured or focused on?

I think the integration of tobacco control in the development agenda and in the noncommunicable disease agenda is a priority. Tobacco taxes also are important, since this is a key measure in the current economic situation.

Other areas to be focused on are;

  • Novel and emerging products.
  • Endgame strategies

Thank you for your time and for the insightful answers!

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