MONTEVIDEO — While other world leaders used their slot at this week's United Nations General Assembly to argue over Syria or the global economy, Uruguayan President Tabaré Vázquez had smoke on his mind.
After winning a second non-consecutive term last November, Vázquez launched a full-scale attack on the global tobacco industry, accusing cigarette companies of "killing their own clients."
The left-leaning leader called on world leaders to take action and enact policies directed at reducing cigarette use in their own countries, the Montevideo-based daily El Observador reports.
Vázquez's speech comes as his country is battling a high-profile lawsuit from Philip Morris International (PMI) — the world's largest multinational tobacco company and producer of the Marlboro brand — against Montevideo's stringent anti-smoking laws.
El Observador writes that the laws, adopted during Vázquez's first term (2005-2010), mandate cigarette companies to introduce plain packaging with a health advisory warning covering 80% of each pack.
According to Spanish daily El País, Philip Morris originally sued the Uruguayan government in 2010, claiming that the anti-smoking measures infringed on the company's rights under Uruguay's bilateral investment treaty with Switzerland, which is where the tobacco giant is headquartered. In 2013, the International Centre for Settlement of Investment Disputes (ICSD) decided to hear the case, which was originally valued at $2 billion but has since been reduced to a possible indemnity of $22 million.
"Health is a human right," President Vázquez said in his remarks at the General Assembly. "It is unethical to prioritize commercial aspects at the expense of a fundamental human right."
The World Health Organization (WHO) has supported Uruguay's anti-tobacco legislation, but the small South American nation still faces a long fight ahead, with a decision not expected for another two years. Regardless of the outcome, the Uruguayan leader insists the laws will stay on the books.