Anti-smoking lobby embarks on global initiative
MEXICO CITY: The international drive against cigarette smoking will turn a new corner in October when the World Health Organisation (WHO) opens its first-ever public hearings on global tobacco control.
Those invited to appear before this hearing at the WHO's Geneva headquarters include medical experts, non-governmental organisations (NGOs) tobacco farmers and the tobacco industry.
"This is an historic opportunity for everyone, including those in the tobacco industry, to present their views on a major public issue that is of great concern to us," said Dr Gro Harlem Brundtland, the WHO's director general.
According to a WHO press release, the hearings on Oct. 12 and 13 are part of the international body's effort to seek a wider spectrum of opinion as it tries to secure support for the Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (FCTC) - the world's first public health convention that attempts to address such concerns as tobacco advertising and promotion, agricultural diversification of tobacco plantations, cigarette smuggling, taxes and subsidies.
The FCTC, which was unveiled last May at the World Health Assembly, has been welcomed by health experts and the anti- smoking lobby as a necessary legal instrument to curb smoking and take on the powerful tobacco industry.
"It is clear that there is enormous support for participation in the process," admitted Heather Selin, an advisor at the Pan American Health Organisation's department on prevention and control of tobacco use.
But while they wait for the FCTC to make a further dent in the global cigarette habit, the anti-smoking lobby has a reason to feel happy about its achievements so far. This month, the Washington D.C.-based Worldwatch Institute (WWI) revealed in a report that the world was turning away from smoking.
"After a century-long build-up in cigarette smoking, the world is turning away from cigarettes following the US lead. In 1999 cigarettes smoked per person in the United States fell by a staggering eight percent and for the world as a whole by more than three percent," declared the report, titled "World Kicking the Cigarette Habit."
The drop in the United States has been significant over the last two decades, it added, where the number of cigarettes smoked per person annually fell from a high of 2,810 in 1980 to 1,633 in 1999, a decline of 42 percent.
World-wide, on the other hand, there has been an 11 percent fall over the last 10 years, from a high of 1,027 cigarettes smoked per person annually in 1990 to 915 in 1999. What impressed WWI were the declines in nearly all the major cigarette consuming countries, "including such bastions of smoking as France, China and Japan."
Quoting the US Department of Agriculture's world tobacco database, the report noted that the number of cigarettes smoked per person in France annually had dropped 19 percent since peaking in 1985, eight percent in China since 1990, and four percent in Japan since 1992.
In the United States, the drop in smoking has been attributed to a number of reasons - a growing awareness about the health-damaging effects of smoking, rising cigarette prices, rising cigarette taxes, aggressive anti-smoking campaigns and a decline in the social acceptability of smoking.
"Ironically, the land that gave the world tobacco is now leading it away from tobacco," the report, authored by Lester Brown of WWI, remarked.
In Europe, the stand taken by the European Union regarding cigarette advertising on television and radio has contributed to the shift, it added.
However, health experts like Selin do not consider the current drop in smoking as a blow to the tobacco industry. "The world's biggest markets, including China, India and other parts of Asia, remained largely untapped."
And she expects the tobacco industry to target these markets with aggressive promotion campaigns. "In most of these markets, tobacco remains unregulated, meaning that tobacco companies can engage in promotional activities that would never be allowed in many developed countries."
Narendra Wagle, of the Association for Consumer Action on Safety and Health in India, agrees. "Multi-national corporations with their huge resources and promotional skills could cause aggravation of health problems in India," he observed.
For Wagle, the opening up of the Indian economy would help spread this "killer tobacco disease."
Currently, according to the WHO, tobacco kills four million people annually, and that toll is due to rise to 10 million deaths per year by 2030. Furthermore, many diseases, which medical researchers link to tobacco smoking, are rampant among smokers, heart disease, strokes, respiratory illnesses several forms of cancer and male impotence.
And for the anti-smoking lobby, that picture provides sufficient evidence why there is still much work to do. "We have to act fast and we have to move ahead in a responsible manner if we want to save lives," said Dr. Derek Yach, the head of the WHO's tobacco control programme.
According to Yach, the anti-smoking lobby needs to "be courageous and far-sighted and ensure that the global debate is driven by public health concerns, yet simultaneously addressing, in a responsible way, possible economic and social implications of demand reduction."
For Brundtland, the forthcoming public hearings will be essential in that regard, since it will help "advance our public health goals in a constructive manner" and also keep the tobacco debate in "the public domain." -Dawn/InterPress Service.