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Tobacco is a major barrier to achieving social justice

18 February 2022

By: Judith Mackay, Source: China Daily

When access to certain basic rights, such as good health, education, and fair and equal treatment, has been distributed unevenly or denied to certain groups, the problem becomes an issue of social justice. Social justice may be used to invoke legal rights in corporate accountability efforts, achieve the equal opportunities that lead to economic justice, or champion health care access.

The preamble of the WHO Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (WHO FCTC) starts with giving “priority to the right to protect public health”.

But tobacco use and its related problems also transcend the health arena. Examining how it is bound up in corporate accountability, economic systems, and public health advocacy contributes to the case for understanding tobacco as a social justice issue.

Defining tobacco as a justice issue comes as an awakening to those who may have believed (wrongly) that tobacco use is solely an individual behavior choice and tobacco illness a lifestyle disease. Tobacco marketers’ public relations strategies have long sought, falsely, to frame the issue of tobacco use as one of “freedom of choice” and “smokers’ rights” to downplay their own recruitment tactics, the addictive nature of tobacco, and the fact that the poor, the less-educated, and the disenfranchised smoke more than their better-off counterparts. Consequently, they suffer a disproportionate burden of tobacco-related illness and death. They are the most exploited victims of predatory marketing practices that capitalize on their lack of education and other vulnerabilities.

The right to health is embedded in several United Nations conventions. World Day of Social Justice on Feb 20 is an international day to search for solutions to achieve sustainable development and to promote social justice. On this day, observed since 2007, there are media campaigns, seminars, and an international event at UN Headquarters to raise awareness of the need for better social justice both within nations and between nations.

Tobacco has a negative effect on the human and health rights of many populations, particularly the poor, the less-educated, the unemployed, women, children, and racial minorities. The health burden of tobacco is disproportionately high in low-income countries, and even among the poor in rich countries. Tobacco impacts on sustainable development and thus the Sustainable Development Goals. Tobacco and social justice are inextricably intertwined.

The right to a tobacco-free world as a component of human and health rights means tackling tobacco over the whole life-cycle of tobacco growing, manufacturing, packaging and labeling, marketing, distribution, tax policies, point of purchase, product use, disposal, environmental destruction, the harmful effects in the context of child labor, violations of workers’ rights, and the rights of special populations.

Tobacco control should be adopted by all nations in order to strengthen human rights and achieve justice. There are several spheres of justice where tobacco control can and should feature prominently:

1. Health justice: Smoke-free policies help to ensure the human right to a healthy environment.

2. Environmental justice: Reduction of smoking reduces the toll of tobacco on deforestation (trees are cut down to cure tobacco), pollution, fires caused by careless smoking, and rubbish from e-tobacco-use paraphernalia.

3. Economic justice: Health economists agree that scaling up tobacco control brings economic benefits to lower-income populations, making it a significant accelerator of the Sustainable Development Goals on reducing inequalities. Economic justice can rarely be achieved without holding corporations accountable for exploiting vulnerable sectors of society.

4. Corporate justice: Tobacco companies have succeeded in addicting those who have the least information about the health risks of smoking, the fewest resources, the lowest social support, and the least access to cessation services. The manufacture, marketing and sale of tobacco by the industry are incompatible with the human right to health.

5. Gender justice: Tobacco control should address the disproportionate harm to women exposed to secondhand smoke.

6. Employment justice: More than 60 percent of the world’s employed population, that is, 2 billion women, men and youth, earn their livelihoods in the informal economy — the part of any economy that is neither taxed nor monitored by any form of government. The COVID-19 pandemic has put a spotlight on the vulnerability of workers in the informal economy, where many work under extremely unhealthy conditions without protection or work benefits. Informal workers are twice as likely to be poor compared to formal workers. Most people enter the informal economy not by choice, but because of a lack of opportunities in the formal economy. In the tobacco industry, for example, women and young girls are working for a pittance in factories in many developing countries. This often traps them in poverty, denies them education, and adversely affects their health. There are also many millions of men and women and an estimated 1.3 million children laboring in harsh, hazardous tobacco fields and trapped in poverty while Big Tobacco reaps handsomely from the poor.

The tobacco industry is a major barrier to achieving social justice.

The key to promoting social justice is in bringing these disparities to public and government attention. A human rights-based approach to tobacco control should be a component of the World Day of Social Justice.

The author is a special adviser to the Global Center for Good Governance in Tobacco Control, a senior policy adviser to the World Health Organization, and director of the Asian Consultancy on Tobacco Control.