Bloomberg Award for Thailand's pictorial warnings on tobacco products

Bloomberg Award for Thailand's pictorial warnings on tobacco products
Jittima Jantanamalaka

The first Bloomberg Award for Global Tobacco Control (2009) was conferred to Dr Prakit Vathisathokit, Executive Secretary of Action on Smoking and Health (ASH), Thailand.

Dr Prakit was awarded for his leadership to implement the pictorial health warning labels on tobacco products effectively in Thailand.

Talking about his campaign at ASH, he contributed extensively in raising awareness in society about tobacco-related health hazards. Working closely with the Ministry of Health in Thailand, Dr Prakit was part of the team which drafted a number of warnings for tobacco products. Thailand was the fourth country in the world after Canada, Brazil and Singapore, to print effective pictorial health warning labels on tobacco products. Thailand has nine photographs of people with tobacco-related life-threatening diseases which it uses on rotational basis for pictorial health warning labels on tobacco products.

Some other countries took these photographs from Thailand to use it as pictorial health warning labels in their own countries, including: Malaysia, Brunei Darussalam, Singapore, Viet Nam, Philippines and Caribbean countries.

The level of awareness about tobacco-related health hazards has certainly gone up, tobacco users are more inclined to quit and children and young people felt de-motivated to use tobacco as a result of strong and effective pictorial health warning labels on tobacco products, said Dr Prakit.

This wasn't an easy task. Tobacco industry tried to threaten and thwart efforts of Dr Prakit, but unsuccessfully. "At that time there were not many countries that had strong and effective pictorial health warning labels on tobacco products. That is why tobacco industry was trying to threaten us. The tobacco industry said that the pictorial health warning labels were breaking the International Trademark law, and they will take legal action against us" said Dr Prakit. "But there were no legal action, just threats."

"Even if the tobacco industry had gone to the court, they would have lost the case because the World Trade Organization (WTO) marks tobacco and cigarette as a special good, which is dangerous to the consumer" said Dr Prakit.

Thailand has signed and ratified the global tobacco treaty - World Health Organization Framework of Convention Tobacco Control (WHO FCTC) - which is a legally binding instrument. The FCTC strongly supports the pictorial health warning label provision, and Thailand is obligated to follow it. Also the WHO has recommended these warnings as they are cost-effective ways to control tobacco. The tobacco industry would have certainly lost in court, says Dr Prakit.

Presently there are 163 countries that have signed on the FCTC and all of them have to implement pictorial health warning labels on tobacco products within 3 years. "To prepare the photographs is not difficult but to handle the tobacco industry which tries to block and interfere with the health policies is most difficult" says Dr Prakit.

Tobacco is very addictive, as addictive as heroin, says Dr Prakit, which is why even many tobacco users are not easily able to quit even if they want to do so.

Due to strong and consistent tobacco control campaign in Thailand over the past 20 years, the number of smokers and sale of cigarettes are still the same - 10 million. If we didn't have a strong campaign and policy framework, estimated number of tobacco users in Thailand would have reached 14 million.

There is a lot more to be done in Thailand on tobacco control. We need to effectively enforce the smoke-free laws in Thailand, ban cross-border advertising and raise taxes on tobacco products so that tobacco cessation services can be scaled up, feels Dr Prakit.

[Audio podcast is available here]

Jittima Jantanamalaka - Citizen News Service (CNS)

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