It is time to completely end the game of tobacco

Mukta Srivastava - CNS
The Ministry of Health and Family Welfare, Public Health Foundation of India (PHFI), Health Related Information Dissemination Amongst Youth (HRIDAY) and World Health Organization (WHO) jointly organized the ‘International Conference on Public Health Priorities in the 21st Century: The Endgame for Tobacco’ recently in New Delhi.

The conference, which was a salute from 500 delegates across 55 nations to the successful completion of 10 years of WHO’s Global Tobacco Treaty- Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (FCTC), was organized with the main aim to devise strategies to curb the menace of tobacco completely.

The conference witnessed the global cry for ending the vicious game of tobacco due to which 6 million lives are swept away from planet earth every year. Tobacco continues to retain its position of being the largest preventable cause of death worldwide. The present situation calls for a stringent global action by people or else the world will soon turn into a graveyard, full of not only the ashes of burnt cigarette butts but also of the dead bodies of those who used them. The present grim scenario is a prelude to the massive outbreak that is very likely to erupt in future if we fail at this juncture. Dr Margaret Chan, Director General, WHO in her inaugural speech at the conference rightly remarked that, “The death clock keeps ticking, and the numbers keep growing faster every minute.”

This statement stands testimony to the epidemic of tobacco that the entire world has witnessed and a call to shun the game of tobacco forever.

Tobacco has affected not only the adults but has also caught the youth in its snare. According to the WHO, a whopping 22%of the world’s population, above 15 years of age, smokes tobacco. The day seems not far away when the human race would evaporate along with puffs of cigarette if the tobacco menace is not stopped with immediate effect. The Indian Prime Minister, Dr.  Manmohan Singh while addressing the Endgame Conference via a video message said, “Tobacco use has already claimed about 100 million lives in the 20th century. It is likely to claim a billion lives in this century unless it is stopped with a firm resolve. Tobacco control needs a combination of multi-sectoral policies and public awareness.” The Prime Minister also noted that we must move towards developing strategies for tobacco growers for their alternative livelihoods, as part of our strategy towards a tobacco-free society..

 The Minister of Health and Family Welfare, Mr Gulam Nabi Azad drew attention towards India’s struggle against the tobacco epidemic, emphasizing on the National Tobacco Control Programme that forms the cornerstone of the Government’s response to curb the threat of tobacco use and provides a conducive environment for the effective enforcement of the Indian tobacco control law. He said that, "India is keenly observing global developments around strong and innovative tobacco control policy measures elsewhere, such as plain packaging of tobacco products adopted by Australia; tobacco endgame objectives adopted by Finland and Norway in their National health programmes; and current policy debates on tobacco free future generations.”

The Health Minister was  hopeful that “the deliberations of this Conference will provide a strong fillip to multi-sectoral engagement of governments, inter-governmental agencies, non-governmental organizations and the private sector in strengthening tobacco control policies across the globe and aid in paving the path for a tobacco-free future generation."

Marry Assunta, Senior policy advisor to South East Asia Tobacco Control Alliance (SEATCA) and recipient of 2003 Luther Terry Award, rightly remarked that, “This is not a conference about discussing the ill effects of tobacco but to end the tobacco game completely.”

The strategic planning for endgame of tobacco also dwelt upon the challenges lying in the path of its implementation. Dr Chan commented upon the biggest threat faced from tobacco industry giants in proper implementation of the FCTC--“The tobacco industry ruthlessly exploits the appeal to commercial interests, everywhere. The most recent example concerns efforts on the part of Philip Morris to sabotage the vote on a strong European Directive on tobacco. A massive army of lobbyists has been deployed to delay or block passage of the law until the European Council presidency moves to Greece, where the company has opened a huge hub for the production and distribution of cigarettes throughout Europe. Here, industry is counting on the historical pattern, where economic and commercial interests trump public health concerns time and time again. Such tactics give tobacco endgames further appeal as a strategy for putting industry out of business.”

 The formulation of the FCTC was indeed a harsh blow to the tobacco industry giants, with its most important clause—Article 5.3-- which identifies the fundamental and irreconcilable conflict between the tobacco industry’s interests and public health policy interests. However, the mere formulation of a document enshrining the most effective tobacco control laws would not solve the purpose. The rudder to the boat is its proper and universal implementation. Sri Keshav Desiraju, Secretary, Health and Family Welfare, opined that the challenge is to expand the discourse on controlling the use of tobacco. Drawing attention to the commendable policies of countries such as Australia, Finland and New Zealand which have made rapid strides towards controlling tobacco use, and of Bhutan which has completely banned the production and sale of tobacco products, he wished that such models could be a pillar of strength for implementation of guidelines elsewhere.

In an exclusive interview given to Citizen News Service - CNS, Dr Wael Safwat Abd Elmeguid, Medical Consultant of General Medicine and Smoking Cessation in Cairo, Egypt, stressed upon the urgent requirement for adoption of global tobacco control policy. He said that, “The introduction of FCTC has already set the base for ending the game of tobacco. Now the key of control is in the hands of global health advocates, youth, media, civil society organizations and people associated with tobacco control. Also it is the responsibility of each individual to recognize the threat of tobacco and start saying NO to it. A big NO to tobacco should be the first tobacco control policy adopted at individual level.”

The time has come now when the world needs to take a leap from tobacco control to ending the tobacco game completely. Tobacco has already taken millions of life and if its use is not completely shunned then it promises to add more victims in its death list every passing day. The words of Toni Morrison, an American novelist-- "If we don't create the future the present extends itself"--reflect the outcomes that may arise if we do not begin with the process of endgame strategy for tobacco at the earliest hour.

Mukta Srivastava, Citizen News Service - CNS
September 2013