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Asian Tribune is published by World Institute For Asian Studies|Powered by WIAS Vol. 12 No. 2340

Fight Against World’s Deadliest Industry

by Manjari Peiris

Tobacco remains the world's single largest preventable cause of death. Tobacco killed about a hundred million people in the twentieth century, it now kills over seven million people every year, more than AIDS, malaria, and traffic accidents combined. Heart disease claims the largest number, but close behind are emphysema and lung cancer, followed by premature birth, gangrene, and cancers of the human bladder, pancreas, and cervix and more.

But how many people know that cigarette smoke contains arsenic, cyanide, and radioactive isotopes?

The Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (WHO FCTC), which is the first international treaty negotiated under the auspices of WHO, was developed in response to the globalization of the tobacco epidemic. It is an evidence-based treaty that reaffirms the right of all people to the highest standards of health. FCTC represents a milestone for the promotion of public health and provides a new legal dimension for international health cooperation. The FCTC advocates for the control of tobacco production, sale and use, as a way to reduce tobacco related illnesses, deaths, environmental degradation and poverty across the world. The WHO-FCTC Secretariat and the UN Development Programme (UNDP) report estimated that up to one billion people could die from tobacco related diseases this century.

Additionally, tobacco costs the global economy over a million dollars annually in medical expenses and lost productivity. As regards environmental impacts - deforestation and soil degradation from tobacco cultivation, as well as water and soil pollution from cigarette butts.

Even though FCTC has made significant progress since 2005, and most countries have put in place tobacco control measures, there is still a great deal of interference from the tobacco companies in government decision making processes and even within UN agencies.

Dr. Tara Singh Bam, Deputy Regional Director (Asia Pacific), International Union Against Tuberculosis and Lung Disease (The Union) and member of the WHO Civil Society Working Group on the Third UN High-Level Meeting on NCDs 2018 said in a webinar organized by CNS, “With the signing of the FCTC, many governments have realized the economic ravages caused by tobacco. While FCTC is a very good foundation for elimination of tobacco, tobacco industry is behaving like criminals by abetting tobacco use, which is a huge public health disaster. We need to implement FCTC's MPOWER policy to counter all the strategies of the tobacco industry."

Highlighting the social and environmental impacts of tobacco Dr Bam gave the example of Malawi, where 80,000 children are forced to work in the tobacco sector, at the cost of being deprived of school education. This is also happening in other countries like, Nepal, India, Indonesia, Myanmar, Cambodia and Timor Leste. In Indonesia more than 10 percent of a family’s income is frittered away in buying tobacco.

Sri Lanka ratified the WHO-FCTC in 2003 and in 2006, the National Authority on Tobacco and Alcohol Act (NATA Act) was adopted. Subsequently, tobacco advertising, promotion and sponsorship; sale of tobacco to minors, smoking at 'enclosed public places' were banned. In 2015 pictorial health warnings (PHW) covering 80 percent of the surface area of cigarette packets were introduced. Sri Lanka has also ratified the Protocol to Eliminate Illicit Trade in Tobacco products.

The majority of smokers in Sri Lanka are males, and non-smokers (mostly children and women) undergo a lot of hardship when they are on road, as smoking is not legally prohibited there. Therefore a large number of people are exposed to the hazards of passive smoking, which kills 600,000 non-smokers every year worldwide.

Sri Lanka’s Cabinet approval for ban on sale of single cigarettes was obtained nearly 3 years ago, but yet to be implemented. Tobacco industry pressure is presumed to be behind this and has also hindered proper implementation of the Pictorial Health Warning regulation in Sri Lanka. Around 22,000 people die every year in Sri Lanka due to tobacco related diseases.

Historically ban of sale of single cigarettes is in the FCTC provisions dealt with the Article 16. The aim was to discourage tobacco use on the part of schoolchildren and young unemployed adults. Moreover it discourages and reduces poor people from getting access to cigarette purchases.

Dr. Danushka Dissanayake, Medical Officer attached to Sri Lanka Army, and a committed tobacco control expert engaged in encouraging and guiding smokers to quit smoking shared that Sri Lanka was the 1st Asian country to have ratified the FCTC and several important provisions of it have been implemented, viz. Articles 13, 16, 8, and 11”.

However implementation of PHW regulation is ineffective as majority of the smokers purchase cigarettes in loose form, hence neither do they see the warnings nor are they aware of them. Article 16 of the FCTC guides the Parties to ban sale of single sticks and mini packs to reduce affordability to youth. Already more than 100 countries have banned sale of single sticks, but, Sri Lankan authorities are silent about it.

One strategy the tobacco industry seems to adopt is to influence crucial decision making and slow down the implementation of tobacco control measures taken. Single sticks encourage potential users to experiment with smoking, and at the same time deprives the government of tobacco taxes. Single cigarettes are targeted at the economically weaker sector, and free single cigarettes are often offered by the tobacco industry. In 2014 a survey done in India revealed that sale of single sticks encourages early experimentation, and promotes illicit cigarette trade while the money goes to informal economy (source of information - The Union South-East Asia Office, International Union Against Tuberculosis and Lung Disease) AND (Asian Pac J Cancer Prev, 16 (13), 5579-5582). As parents we request governments to ban these "Cancer Sticks."

Over 190 countries participating in the 73rd United Nations General Assembly that takes place in September 2018, will debate on the theme of sustainable societies. Equally noteworthy are the two UN High Level Meetings to end TB and beat NCDs happening in the same month. The 12th Asia Pacific Conference on Tobacco or Health will be connived in Indonesia in early September. It is important for political leaders and civil society to optimally leverage these opportunities so that end game of tobacco becomes a reality and progress on sustainable development goals gets accelerated.

- Asian Tribune -

Fight Against  World’s Deadliest Industry
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