19.0 Background to the WHO Framework Convention on Tobacco Control

Last updated: November 2023     

Suggested citation: Kapa, W., Slattery, C., Zhou, S., George, A. & Liberman, J. 19.0 Background to the WHO Framework Convention on Tobacco Control. In Greenhalgh, EM, Scollo, MM and Winstanley, MH [editors].  Tobacco in Australia: Facts and issues. Melbourne: Cancer Council Victoria; 2023. Available from: https://www.tobaccoinaustralia.org.au/chapter-19-ftct/19-0-background-to-the-fctc


The ‘devastating health, social, environmental and economic consequences of tobacco consumption and exposure to tobacco smoke’ are a truly global problem (WHO Framework Convention on Tobacco Control, Article 3).1

Over the past few decades, the tobacco epidemic has spread across the world, facilitated ‘through a variety of complex factors with cross-border effects’, including trade liberalisation, direct foreign investment, global marketing, transnational tobacco advertising, promotion and sponsorship, and the international movement of contraband and counterfeit cigarettes (WHO Framework Convention on Tobacco Control, Foreword). The globalisation of the tobacco epidemic has had profound effects. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), tobacco kills more than eight million people per year,  and causes annual economic losses of US$1.4 trillion worldwide.2, 3 Most of these deaths occur in developing countries, where the economic impacts of the tobacco epidemic—increased social, welfare and healthcare spending by governments, and significant loss of income to families—are felt particularly acutely.2-5

Recognising that ‘the spread of the tobacco epidemic is a global problem with serious consequences for public health that calls for the widest possible international cooperation and the participation of all countries in an effective, appropriate and comprehensive international response’ (WHO Framework Convention on Tobacco Control, Preamble), the international community undertook the negotiation of a treaty to provide a global framework for tobacco control measures. The WHO Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (WHO FCTC)—which was adopted in 2003, came into force in 2005, and has been one of the most rapidly and widely supported treaties in the history of the United Nations— is the first treaty ever to be negotiated under the auspices of the WHO. Its objective is to:

protect present and future generations from the devastating health, social, environmental and economic consequences of tobacco consumption and exposure to tobacco smoke by providing a framework for tobacco control measures to be implemented by the Parties at the national, regional and international levels in order to reduce continually and substantially the prevalence of tobacco use and exposure to tobacco smoke’ (WHO FCTC, Article 3).

As of November 2023, the WHO FCTC had 183 Parties.6 Under international law, each of the Parties—having ratified, accepted, approved or acceded to the WHO FCTC—must perform, in good faith, all obligations contained in the Convention (Vienna Convention on the Law of Treaties, Article 26).7 Parties are also encouraged, under Article 2.1, to implement measures beyond those required by the Convention in order to better protect public health.

In addition, six countries have signed the WHO FCTC, but have not ratified, accepted or approved it.6 In signing the Convention, these countries have undertaken, as a matter of international law, not to defeat the object and purpose of the Convention (Vienna Convention on the Law of Treaties, Article 18). As stated in the foreword to the WHO FCTC, signatories also ‘indicate that they will strive in good faith to ratify, accept, or approve it, and show political commitment not to undermine the objectives set out in it’.

Australia became a signatory to the WHO FCTC on 5 December 2003, soon after the Convention opened for signature. Australia was one of the first 40 countries to ratify the WHO FCTC, and so became a Party on 27 February 2005, the date on which the WHO FCTC came into force. Australia is thus legally bound to perform, in good faith, the full range of obligations outlined in the Convention.

Relevant news and research

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1. World Health Organization. WHO Framework Convention on Tobacco Control. Geneva: World Health Organization, 2003. Available from: https://apps.who.int/iris/bitstream/handle/10665/42811/9241591013.pdf?sequence=1.

2. World Health Organization. Fact sheet: Tobacco. Geneva: World Health Organization, Last update: 24 May 2022; Viewed 2 November 2022. Available from: https://www.who.int/en/news-room/fact-sheets/detail/tobacco.

3. National Cancer Institute (United States) and World Health Organization, The Economics of Tobacco and Tobacco Control. NCI Tobacco Control Monograph Series Vol. 21.Bethesda, MD, United States, and Geneva 2017. Available from: https://cancercontrol.cancer.gov/sites/default/files/2020-08/m21_complete.pdf.

4. Vital Strategies and Tobacconomics. The Tobacco Atlas. Illinois: Vital Strategies and Tobacconomics 2021. Last update: 2021; Viewed 2 November 2022. Available from: https://tobaccoatlas.org/about/.

5. World Health Organization. Tobacco Threatens Us All: Protect Health, Reduce Poverty and Promote Development. Geneva: World Health Organization, 2017. Available from: https://www.nbna.org/files/Tobacco%20Threatens%20us%20all.pdf.

6. United Nations Treaty Collection. WHO 'Framework Convention on Tobacco Control' New York: United Nations, Last update: 2017; Viewed 28 September 2020. Available from: https://treaties.un.org/pages/ViewDetails.aspx?src=TREATY&mtdsg_no=IX-4&chapter=9&clang=_en.

7. Vienna Convention on the Law of Treaties 1969. New York: United Nations, 2005. Available from: https://legal.un.org/ilc/texts/instruments/english/conventions/1_1_1969.pdf.