One South African human rights lawyer in the US heads an effort whose goal is nothing less than to save a billion lives over the next century. And she may already have saved lives on a scale normally associated with famed vaccine researchers and peace negotiators. Formerly an adviser to Nelson Mandela’s administration, Patricia Lambert, 61, is now head of a New York-based organisation that helps the world’s poorest governments fight back against big tobacco.
The Rhodes University alumnus is director of that industry’s nemesis: the International Legal Consortium for the Campaign for Tobacco Free Kids. “I’m in the business of saving lives,” she says. “That’s a compelling reason to go to work each day. Every young person who doesn’t take up smoking and every person who stops smoking is a life saved.” Even Lambert’s personal life seems to exist at the sharp edge of human rights battles in the US.
In 2007, she was forced to return to SA to be able to marry her American girlfriend, because US federal law at the time did not fully recognise same-sex marriage. She chose the Cradle of Humankind at Sterkfontein in Gauteng as the place for her wedding, and Women’s Day as the date. In 2013, she and her wife were among those who celebrated on the steps of the US Supreme Court after its discriminatory Defence of Marriage Act was struck down.
Lambert is the lawyer who spear-headed SA’s domestic anti-smoking laws, under then health minister Manto Tshabalala-Msimang. But it was her role as the lead South African negotiator on the major global treaty on smoking – the Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (2005) – which brought her skills to global prominence. According to a recent report by the World Health Organisation, that treaty – which binds 168 countries to limits on smoking – is set to save 7.4-million lives by 2050.
But the problem, says Lambert, lies in the implementation – and even the deliberate sabotage – of the life-saving regulation. She says the giant tobacco industry is actively threatening developing countries with costly legal action if they dare to implement their own tobacco control laws. Namibia, Togo and Uganda are among the governments that have come under attack from tobacco firms.
Established by billionaire New York mayor Michael Bloomberg, the Campaign for Tobacco Free Kids is the legal and advocacy shield for developing nations. Lambert says: “Why do people smoke? Because there is a powerful industry that markets the deadly products without conscience, and motivated by easy profit. So that means that I’m also in the business of fighting against the tobacco industry.”
However, she is undaunted by the notorious tactics of big tobacco, and her team are actively training lawyers around the world on how to stand firm against intimidation. “We’ve created an online database called Tobacco Control Laws, which contains more than 1 500 laws and regulations from 200 countries. Before I was a lawyer I was a teacher. I am energised by our regular inperson seminars for lawyers from around the world.”
Lambert adds: “The roots of my current work are in SA, which I still call home. If current consumption trends continue, tobacco is projected to kill 1-billion people in the 21st century. If I’m successful in my work, this dire prediction will not come true.”