Our Congratulations to SEATCA Director Bungon Ritthiphakdee: RD 2010 ASIAN of the Year

Bungon Rithiphakdee:  Fighting the Endless War Against Tobacco

Nuchanad Netprasertsri

It has been more than 20 years since Bungon Rithiphakdee stood on the frontlines of the unspoken war between influential tobacco conglomerates and the tobacco control network. The crisis started in 1986, when the United States forced Thailand to open up its cigarette market. As a result, the then Anti-Smoking Campaign Project (now Action on Smoking and Health Foundation Thailand) had to accelerate its multiple projects. Bungon, who was the project manager, dedicated herself to this job; she conducted research, created strong networks, cooperated with the media and created domestic as well as international alliances. Her dedication paid off and many other agencies started to play a more active role in the war against tobacco. Bungon then started to look at neighbouring countries that were still facing similar problems, believing that working together would strengthen tobacco control in the region. She established the Southeast Asia Tobacco Control Alliance (SEATCA) and assumed the post of coordinator in 2001. Her main responsibility in the organization was to facilitate sharing of expertise and best practices as well as to look for funds. SEATCA has four areas of responsibility: public policy development, capa-city building for local partners, best practices sharing and generating local evidence. A graduate from the Faculty of Arts, Chulalongkorn University, Bungon does not have a degree in public health. What she does have is a strong interest in working for the good of society. She believes that in order to promote health, you have to look into the social aspects of the problem. The number of smokers worldwide now number 1.2 billion, half of whom live in Asia. India alone has about 120 million smokers and smoking may soon account for 20 percent of all male deaths and five percent of female deaths among Indians age between 30 and 69. Statistics from the World Health Organization (WHO) show that at present, as many as five million people die of tobacco-related diseases every year, or around 14,000 daily. (Tobacco is estimated to kill 900,000 Indians annually.) “[Tobacco companies] are only concerned with expanding their market for the sake of profit although they are well aware of its deadly dangers,” Bungon says. Bungon received a prestigious award from the WHO in 2001 and the Luther Terry Award from the American Cancer Society in 2006. Despite the recognition, Bungon, who is now the director of SEATCA, says she remains at the frontline of an endless war. Cigarette producers are always active and they are now employing new methods in order to expand their market, including interfering in public policy and tobacco control legislation. Their latest attempt is to make use of social networking, which proves to be a legal loophole in many countries. Despite all the problems, “I always enjoy my work, backed up by a strong belief that I am doing the right thing for society,” says Bungon.

(Readers Digest Asian Edition, December 2010)