Why countries should implement domestic tobacco control law

Francis Okoye, CNS Correspondent, Nigeria
Health experts from across the world explained why countries should fully implement domestic tobacco control laws in their respective countries, during an exclusive webinar for media organised by Citizen News Service (CNS) in  the lead up to World No Tobacco Day 2016.

The experts included Dr Tara Singh Bam—Regional Advisor, Tobacco Control in Asia Pacific of International Union Against Tuberculosis and Lung Disease (The Union), John Stewart—Deputy Campaigns Director, Corporate Accountability International, and Yvona Tous— Policy Advisor of Framework Convention Alliance (FCA) for Tobacco Control. According to them, tobacco is not just a health issue, but also has economic implications. There are about 1.1 billion smokers of tobacco in the world, with most of them coming from middle and low income countries.  They are prone to smoking and/or chewing tobacco in its various forms. As nicotine is addictive, they get trapped, spending more money on buying tobacco than they would in areas like housing and education. Tobacco economic costs are in the region of US$1 trillion a year.

Tobacco hazards

Health impacts of tobacco include diseases like cancer, heart disease, and diabetes. According to WHO, tobacco kills nearly half of its users. 6 million people die from tobacco use every year—one death every 6 seconds. This becomes all the more alarming considering that 22% of the world population aged 15 and above are smokers. Tobacco users deprive their families of income, increase healthcare costs and hinder economic development. Children who work on tobacco farms are vulnerable to green tobacco sickness as they absorb nicotine through skin while handling wet tobacco leaves. There are more than 4,000 chemicals in tobacco smoke, 250 of which are harmful and 50 of which are carcinogenic. Exposure to second hand tobacco smoke kills more than 600,000 non smokers every year and is also responsible for sudden death of infants and low birth weight.

Tobacco is big business

According to the 5th edition of the Tobacco Atlas, in 2014 the combined profits of the 6 leading tobacco companies– accounting for 85% of all cigarettes smoked globally – were  US$44.1 billion, up from US$35.1 billion in 2010. The fight against tobacco use by countries and health bodies is marred by systematic lobbying by the industry. Tobacco companies operate by subverting global efforts to control tobacco use.  Their efforts are usually well financed, elaborate, sophisticated and invisible. Their community service relationship promotes both brand and profit. A BBC panorama documentary about bribery scandal in tobacco industry titled “The Secret Bribes of Big Tobacco” has exposed that British America Tobacco, BAT has been involved in years of systematic bribery of decision makers in Africa to undermine UN campaigns to save lives. In a WHO report, Tobacco industry interference with tobacco control, Dr Gro Harlem Brundtland, former Director-General of the WHO, rightly described tobacco use as "a communicated disease - communicated through marketing." "The tobacco industry has used its economic power, lobbying and marketing machinery, and manipulation of the media to discredit scientific research and influence governments  in order to propagate the sale and distribution of its deadly products" added this report.

What countries can do

Countries should have strong domestic tobacco control laws and ensure their strict implementation to protect the health and lives of their citizens. They following methods can help:

  • Pictorial Health Warnings (PHW) on tobacco products are one effective way to do this.  WHO statistics reveal that PHW made 55% of current smokers stop smoking, made 45.5% of smokers reduce number of cigarettes smoked and convinced about 30% of youths who would have become smokers not to smoke.
  • Raising taxes and prices of tobacco products can be an effective and important means to reduce tobacco consumption and health care costs, and represent a revenue stream for financing for development in many countries.
  • Youth can play an important role in tobacco control. They should be the target of tobacco control and not of the tobacco industry (as they mostly are). They should be empowered and engaged to combat tobacco use.The experts agreed that they are two ways to reduce tobacco use— prevent youth from starting to use tobacco and encourage/help users to quit.
  • Smoke Free Environments should be promoted in earnest by countries, as this would also reduce the hazards of second hand smoking, among other benefits.
  • Cessation Programmes help users to quit smoking. Unfortunately, cessation assistance is a neglected field, especially in many of the low income countries. Countries should promote cessation assistance programmes in their countries.
  • Mass Media can play an important role to warn the public about the health and economic hazards of tobacco use. 
  • Advertising Bans – Only 29 countries have banned all forms of tobacco advertisement, promotion and sponsorship.

While 180 countries have signed on the legally binding WHO framework convention on tobacco control (WHO FCTC), which is a package of evidence based tobacco control measures, action on ground is lagging behind. More recently, UN member states also committed to the post 2015 development agenda comprising 17 sustainable6 development goals (SDGs). One of these (SDG 3.a) is to strengthen the implementation of the global tobacco treaty WHO FCTC in all countries. Another (SDG 3.4) is to reduce by one third premature mortality from NCDs by 2030. It is only through political will and cooperation from civil society and public that we can make this happen.

Francis Okoye, Citizen News Service - CNS
June 6, 2016