6 November 2016:
Dr. Margaret Chan
As India prepares to host a key global anti-tobacco conference, the world must seize the chance to end a scourge that claims 6m lives a year
Tobacco use, the leading cause of death from non-communicable diseases such as heart and lung disorders and cancer, claims about 6m lives a year. On Monday, countries will gather in Delhi, India, for the seventh conference of the parties to the World Health Organisation framework convention on tobacco control, a treaty that has sparked global action to stem the epidemic.
The treaty is already one of the most widely embraced in UN history. One of my proudest accomplishments at the helm of the World Health Organisation has been rallying global efforts to drive down tobacco use. I’m pleased to say that, following the adoption of the agreement, governments around the world have taken decisive steps not only to reduce tobacco use, but also to stand up to the multinational tobacco companies standing in the way of global progress.
The tide of tobacco use is beginning to turn. After decades of Big Tobacco targeting low- and middle-income countries and years of steadily increasing sales, tobacco sales show signs of dropping. Countries are passing stronger laws to reduce demand for tobacco products not envisioned even a few years ago, and tobacco companies are losing the legal challenges they mount against these measures.
From Uruguay to Australia, countries large and small have stood up to the tobacco industry by implementing plain packaging and large pictorial health warning labels. Where tobacco companies have tried to threaten and bully nations, governments have responded with firm measures to protect public health.
However, amid these clear signs of progress, the tobacco industry has made it absolutely clear that it has no intention of abandoning a business model that depends on enticing millions of new users – especially young people – to its deadly products.
The impetus of the global movement to reduce tobacco use should not be lost. More than ever, decisive action is needed. Now is the time for countries to build on the momentum established and protect their citizens. By raising tax on tobacco products, requiring graphic warning labels, conducting hard hitting mass media campaigns and banning tobacco industry advertising and marketing, countries can improve the health of their citizens, reduce healthcare costs and prevent the tobacco industry from addicting another generation of children.
Illicit trade in tobacco threatens the progress governments make in tobacco control by making cheap and unregulated products available. I am pleased to note that governments are increasingly taking action and becoming parties to the new international treaty to eliminate illicit trade in tobacco products.
We need to work together, as allies in global health, to fight to protect people from the dangers of tobacco. I recently appointed Michael Bloomberg as WHO global ambassador for non-communicable diseases because of his track record in tobacco control, which includes more than 10 years of support for low- and middle-income countries. Advocates like him, and many others who champion tobacco control, stand with the WHO to support governments in this fight.
I am also heartened by progress on standardised or “plain” packaging – a measure introduced by the treaty and pioneered in Australia, where smoking rates have now fallen to record lows. The early evidence from Australia shows that plain packaging, as part of a comprehensive approach to tobacco control, is diminishing the appeal of tobacco products, increasing the effectiveness of health warnings and reducing the ability of the pack to mislead. France and the UK have begun implementing plain packaging laws, and New Zealand and Hungary have recently passed legislation. Many other countries are close behind.
We have made great strides, but we have so much more to do. Tobacco use remains one of the most vexing challenges we face in the global health arena.
I urge global leaders convening in India to see this moment as an opportunity to bend the course of public health history and commit to returning home with a renewed dedication to fully implement the WHO framework convention.
To make the event effective, it is vital that governments recognise the inherent conflict between public health and the interests of the tobacco industry. Representatives from the latter should be completely excluded from government delegations.
Every death from tobacco is an avoidable tragedy. It is our task to reverse the tide, effecting an irreversible decline in the number of such deaths.
We need history to show us that the turning point in the tobacco epidemic is now. We know what to do and we know how to do it. We now need to ensure that every country moves forward and no one is left behind. Future generations depend on us.