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Tobacco addiction grows from dirty deeds

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A damning report launched at the 17th World Congress of Tobacco (WCTOH) shows the tobacco industry is increasingly targeting vulnerable populations in Africa, Asia, and the Middle East where people are not protected by strong tobacco control regulations.

The figures in The Tobacco Atlas are nothing short of alarming. In 2016 alone, tobacco use caused over 7.1 million deaths worldwide (5.1 million in men, 2.0 million in women).

Most of these deaths were attributable to cigarette smoking, while 884,000 were related to secondhand smoke. But while tobacco-related disease and death grows in some communities, so do tobacco industry profits.

The combined profits of the world’s biggest tobacco companies exceeded US $62.27 billion in 2015. This is equivalent to US $9,730 for the death of each smoker, an increase of 39 per cent since the last Atlas was published, when the figure stood at US$7,000.

“The Atlas shows that progress is possible in every region of the world. African countries in particular are at a critical point – both because they are targets of the industry but also because many have opportunity to strengthen policies and act before smoking is at epidemic levels.” said Dr Jeffrey Drope, co-editor and author of The Atlas.

In sub-Saharan Africa alone, consumption increased by 52 per cent between 1980 and 2016 (to 250 billion cigarettes from 164 billion cigarettes). This is being driven by population growth and aggressive tobacco marketing in countries like Lesotho, where prevalence is estimated to have increased from 15 per cent in 2004 to 54 per cent in 2015.

José Luis Castro, President and Chief Executive Officer of Vital Strategies, co-author of The Atlas said it: “Shows that wherever tobacco control is implemented, it works… People benefit economically and in improved health. And the industry rightly suffers.”

Gender inequity was also address at the WTCOH, highlighting the negative economic impacts of tobacco use on women – not just in healthcare costs resulting from tobacco-related illness, but also in the diversion of family income, from food and education to tobacco. The emphasis was that tobacco use drives families into poverty.

WHO Regional Director for Africa, Dr Matshidiso Moeti, said: “The tobacco industry views this region as virgin territory to be exploited. They are targeting women and girls specifically and interfering in the adoption of tobacco control policies that will protect health when properly enforced.”

Tactics of fear by tobacco companies were also heard at the conference from several tobacco control advocates who had bravely fought violence or threats because of their advocacy against the expansion of smoking in their countries, including Indonesia and Nigeria.

Dr Lekan Ayo-Yusuf, Chair of the WCTOH Scientific Committee, said the research showed the need to look at the totality of the supply chain of tobacco products, and to follow the whole process from farming, through to taxation, through to point-of-sale restrictions.

WHO launched new guidance at WCTOH on the role tobacco product regulation can play to reduce tobacco demand, save lives and raise revenues for health services to treat tobacco-related disease, in the context of comprehensive tobacco control.

Many countries have developed advanced policies to reduce the demand for tobacco, but Governments can do much more to implement regulations to control tobacco use, especially by exploiting tobacco product regulation.

Dr Douglas Bettcher, WHO’s Director of the Department for the Prevention and Control of Non-communicable diseases (NCDs), said: “Tobacco product regulation is an under-utilised tool which has a critical role to play in reducing tobacco use.”

“The tobacco industry has enjoyed years of little or no regulation, mainly due to the complexity of tobacco product regulation and lack of appropriate guidance in this area. These new tools provide a useful resource to countries to either introduce or improve existing tobacco product regulation provisions and end the tobacco industry ‘reign’.

“Only a handful of countries currently regulate the contents, design features and emissions of tobacco products and tobacco products are one of the few openly available consumer products that are virtually unregulated in terms of contents, design features and emissions,” Dr Bettcher said.

A copy of The Atlas can be seen here: https://tobaccoatlas.org/.

MEREDITH HORNE

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