UN labor agency shelves decision to end Big Tobacco ties

In an embarrassing retreat, the U.N. labor agency says it has shelved a decision on whether to end its ties with Big Tobacco, correcting its own statement earlier Thursday indicating that it would cut ties to an industry faulted for major health risks.

International Labor Organization spokesman Hans von Rohland cited a mix-up in which the "tripartite" U.N. agency — bringing together business, labor groups and governments — had previously said it would stop taking funds from the tobacco industry and end their public-private partnerships.

"We sent you the wrong version of the decision taken by the ILO Governing Body on ILO cooperation with the tobacco industry," von Rohland said in an email to reporters. "The ILO has not at this stage made a decision to end cooperation with the tobacco industry."

"We are very sorry for this error in transmission," he added.

Instead of the four-point decision initially sent to reporters, the agency issued a revised, one-point decision saying its governing body had instructed its director-general to present an "integrated ILO strategy" to address labor issues on the tobacco sector at its next meeting in March.

Anti-tobacco groups say the ILO is the last U.N. agency to retain ties to the tobacco business.

The Geneva-based body has struggled to calibrate its mandate to help ensure proper working conditions, particularly in an industry linked to child labor, amid a broader U.N. fight against the health risks of tobacco use.

The ILO has received over $15 million through partnerships that aim to fight child labor in the industry. They include deals with Japan Tobacco International as well as with a nonprofit group linked to some of the world's biggest tobacco companies.

Mark Hurley, an international director with the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids, called the postponement of an ILO decision "disappointing." He said in a statement that tobacco companies "should have no place in a U.N. agency like the ILO or any responsible organization."

"Tobacco companies use membership in respected organizations like the ILO to portray themselves as responsible corporate citizens and divert attention from their role in causing a global tobacco epidemic that is projected to kill 1 billion people worldwide this century," he said.

The ILO has already committed to abide by the World Health Organization's convention on tobacco, which prevents the tobacco industry from any role in policymaking.

On the labor front, the agency says manual harvesting predominates in the tobacco industry because of the fragility of leaves. It says that presents "a unique hazard" to both adult and child harvesters who can suffer from "green tobacco sickness" — nicotine poisoning caused by contact with the skin.

The industry is important to the livelihoods of millions of workers, often in poor countries. The impoverished sub-Saharan country of Malawi, for example, gets more than 70 percent of its foreign exchange earnings from tobacco exports, ILO says.