Tobacco control and human rights: Any linkages?

Shobha Shukla, Citizen News Service - CNS
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Tobacco control actions need to underline that health is an important human rights issue and a willful denial of it by anyone—whether by the tobacco industry or by the tobacco consumers--is a breach of right to good health. The recently concluded 16th World Conference on Tobacco or Health (WCTOH 2015) stressed upon a human rights based approach to tobacco control at individual, community and country levels.

The global tobacco treaty(formally called as World Health Organization Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (WHO FCTC) was developed from previous human rights treaties with the objective to ‘protect present and future generations from the devastating health, social, environmental and economic consequences of tobacco consumption and exposure to tobacco smoke’. Various UN Human Rights Treaties support the MPOWER framework of the FCTC. Even though 180 countries have ratified this treaty as of now and at least some of them are making good progress in tobacco control, there continue to be human rights violations in several areas like: right to a healthy environment (secondhand smoke; exposure to pesticides or green tobacco sickness); right to a sustainable income (crops prices; bidi workers wages); and the right to information (education to help make rational choices).

Passive smoking (which includes cigarettes, waterpipes, midwakhs etc) in closed public spaces is a denial of human rights, directed mainly against small children, pregnant women, and non-smoking adults including those suffering from lung or heart problems. Passive smoking kills 600,000 every year out of which 165,000 are children.

Dr Vinayak Prasad, WHO TFI
In an interview given to Citizen News Service (CNS) onsite at the 16th WCTOH in Abu Dhabi, Dr Vinayak Prasad, Project Manager at the WHO's Tobacco Free Initiative (TFI) said that, "Human rights violations for a child of smoker parents start even before birth, as he/she gets exposed to tobacco smoke while still in the mother's womb. After birth, exposure to secondhand smoke denies the child the right to say no to it, as we still do not have a law that prevents smoking at home. Thus even before being born and then during childhood, he/she has hardly any right to oppose health hazardous smoking at home. But the violations do not end here as the tobacco industry starts targetting children of very young age. Globally there is around 10% prevalence of smoking at the age of 13 years. Is it rational to believe that such a young child knows that what he/she is buying could lead to a life long addiction of this poisonous product and to diseases like cancer/respiratory/heart diseases 20-30 years down the line?"

"Not only children but adults too are denied the right of taking rational decisions and making informed choices as far as tobacco use is concerned. There are other human rights issues too-- tobacco growing farmers are generally unaware of green tobacco sickness. Recently in Zambia we found an increase in preterm deliveries and abortions in women as tobacco leaves are kept inside the house leading to asthma and other diseases. This is violating the human rights of wives of tobacco farmers. As a society we need to be cognizant of the fact that tobacco use does not benefit anyone. This human rights concern that tobacco does not benefit anyone should be addressed adequately in the post 2015 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs),” said Dr Prasad.

In the opinion of Cornel Radu Loghin, Director Policy and Strategy at the European Network for Smoking and Tobacco Prevention, tobacco use violates not only the rights of nonsmokers, who have the right to live in smoke-free environments, but also of smokers who have the right to stop smoking at any time, (but cannot because tobacco is addictive). Their freedom of choice is not respected due to their addictive dependence on tobacco products. The rights to life, health, livelihoods, education, food, healthy environment and development are seriously jeopardized by the tobacco industry.

But for the tobacco industry, human rights is just about the personal right of the consumer to smoke and the right of the tobacco industry to advertise. It harps upon the tobacco industry being a legal industry and a law abiding corporate citizen paying taxes and offering jobs. It however forgets to see the infringement of rights of the general public, including women and children and non-tobacco using adults. And so while the industry flaunts that it pays taxes and doles out money under the garb of its corporate social responsibility (CSR), it continues to take away and jeopardize the health and lives of millions by selling poison.

While Behrakis of Greece spoke about the usurpation of workers’ (including pregnant women) rights working in café/ bars due to secondhand smoke, Mira Aghi of India focused upon the human rights violations of women and children workers (in direct violation of the anti Child Labour law) employed in the unorganized sector of bidi (local and cheap tobacco-rolled in a leaf) rolling—they breathe tobacco fumes and develop chronic bronchitis and asthma; remaining in crouched positions the whole day long, they suffer from backache and knee problems; children are out of play, education and health. Being unorganized and more vulnerable, children and women cannot fight for their rights or protest for fear of reprisal from their employer and subsequent loss of job.

The Indian government estimates 4.45 million women and children work in the bidi industry—75% women and 25% children. They work under dismal conditions and paid a pittance for rolling bidis that fetch astronomical profits to the bidi industry.

Dr Rakesh Gupta, Senior Surgical Oncologist and Consultant- NCDs Control (cancer and tobacco), insists upon ending the game of tobacco instead of merely controlling tobacco use. “About 77 million people have died due to tobacco since the Death Clock was put up on 28 October 1999- the first meeting of WHO on FCTC. Endgame to tobacco is the only solution to stop denying the right to healthy living to people across the globe and to prevent sufferings/deaths from tobacco use. Else many countries will stay tobacco-sick and become poorer due to an unyielding industry-political nexus, varied and low tax differential on tobacco products, industry-tweaked weak tobacco control laws exploited to the hilt by the offenders due to affordable penalties and still weaker enforcement by the agencies that are indifferent to the issue, poor-illiterate majority with very low-level of awareness of tobacco harms and benefits of quitting. All of this amounts to human rights violations.”

Mark Spires from John Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health sees a practical connection between tobacco control and human rights at the global level—the right to life and the right to health is outlined in international human rights treaties and because tobacco use is the largest cause of preventable deaths in the world, its control is essential for the realization of these rights.

Let us not forget that freedom is just not about having options but also the ability to choose rationally between options, more so in the realm of tobacco control.

Shobha Shukla, Citizen News Service (CNS)
Follow Shobha on Twitter: @shobha1shukla
24 March 2015