Matthew Allen: Guiding tobacco control as it goes from strength to strength

Matthew Allen: Guiding tobacco control as it goes from strength to strength

In 1999 Matthew Allen was asked to join the New Zealand government’s delegation to the negotiations on the WHO Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (FCTC). Allen was then National Drug Policy manager for the Ministry of Health, and, with his background as a tobacco control policy analyst and environmental health officer, he was well-suited to lead the health side of the delegation.  But when he took the assignment, he could not know that he would spend the next four years in the middle of the unique process that led to the adoption of the world’s first WHO-sponsored public health treaty.

“It was a baptism by fire, both excruciating and exciting,” he says of the countless hours of debate, the late nights and uncertain course of the negotiations. “Right up until the last two days, the treaty could have ended up toothless. Useless.”

Some countries wanted to merely “enshrine the status quo”, he says, but New Zealand and other likeminded negotiators pushed to establish more ambitious, aspirational requirements – for example, to increase the size of graphic health warnings to cover 50% or more of tobacco packaging.  In the end they largely succeeded, and Allen says it has been rewarding and exciting to see tobacco control go from strength to strength over the past 11 years.

Through his firm, Allen + Clarke Policy and Regulatory Specialists Limited, Allen has continued to be active in tobacco control in countries throughout the Pacific Region, while also working with governments and other clients on a wide range of other issues such as drug and alcohol policy, environmental health regulation and electoral finance law reform.

In 2007, he was invited by The Union to work with the new Bloomberg Initiative to Reduce Tobacco Use grants programme. This programme, which The Union co-manages with the US-based Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids, has now awarded more than US $125 million to 65 countries through 680 grants  for projects to develop and deliver high-impact, evidence-based tobacco control interventions. 

Allen also works with the Department of Tobacco Control in other ways, such as providing capacity building to officials in 10 Indian sub-national jurisdictions on preventing tobacco industry interference and facilitating training in Thailand on tobacco advertising, promotion and sponsorship.

He was the lead author on The Union’s 2012 FCTC Article 5.3 Toolkit: Guidance for Governments on Preventing Tobacco Industry Interference, which provides step-by-step guidance on the key legislative and policy elements of a strategy to safeguard laws and policies from tobacco industry interference. And recently he has been working on a position statement on international trade law and tobacco control. 

“We’re trying to develop a document to help grantees and staff understand the fundamentals of trade and investment law – and most importantly, to feel comfortable engaging with governments in dialogue on the implications of trade and investment agreements for domestic tobacco control.” says Allen.

Trade and investment agreements do pose a significant risk to tobacco control legislation today, because of the “chilling effect” where the threat of trade challenges – both by governments and perhaps more significantly, the tobacco industry directly through ‘investor-state dispute mechanisms, discourage governments from putting in place new tobacco control measures. 

Allen says this is particularly the case in relation to new and innovative interventions such as plain packaging and tobacco product content regulation.  Developing countries in particular can be discouraged from taking action because of the potential high costs and uncertainties of litigation.

But 20 years after the FCTC was first proposed, Allen believes the progress of tobacco control is unstoppable. “We’re gradually ratcheting up”, and the incremental approach has been essential in countries like China, where “it made absolute sense to start small with local and regional actions.”

The strength of The Union as a partner to countries, he says, is that it is an effective broker. “We support the countries to do the best they can. We support all the partners, but they need to do the job, and the credit is theirs.”

Allen enjoys working on tobacco control because he can see that it’s making a difference, and its importance is evidence-based. “There are two camps of people involved in tobacco control”, he says. “Those who base their arguments on emotion and rhetoric, and those who base them on evidence.” Although he is firmly on the side of evidence, he concedes that both are needed.

As for the future, he does not set limits on what might be achieved. He points out that the tiny Pacific island of Niue aspires to become a completely tobacco-free country. It might sound impossible, but he says, over the next five to ten years countries like Niue could be a great proving ground for the next phase of turning the impossible into the possible.