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Bobby Ramakant: Reversing The Tobacco Epidemic

WHO's MPOWER and corporate accountability may reverse the tobacco epidemic

By Bobby Ramakant

The Global Tobacco Epidemic Report (2008) of World Health Organization underlines not only the evidence-based fact that tobacco epidemic is worsening but also recommends a comprehensive package of six-effective tobacco control policies – clubbed as 'MPOWER' that have demonstrated results in helping countries stop the diseases, deaths and economic damages caused by tobacco use.

However the global tobacco epidemic stands starkly apart from other conventional disease control programmes because of an aggressive tobacco industry that is hell-bent on protecting and expanding its markets globally, particularly in the developing countries of Asia and Africa. The six-effective tobacco control policies recommended under the MPOWER package doesn't include holding tobacco corporations accountable specifically, although it is inherent in each of them!

The MPOWER package includes:

M: stands for 'monitor' tobacco use and prevention policies (not the tobacco corporations) Assessment of tobacco use and its impact must be strengthened.

P: stands for 'protect' people from tobacco smoke. All people have a fundamental right to breathe clean air. Smoke-free places are essential to protect non-smokers and also to encourage smokers to quit.

O: stands for 'offer' help to quit tobacco use. Services to treat tobacco dependence are fully available in only nine countries with 5% of the world's population. Countries must establish programmes providing low-cost, effective interventions for tobacco users who want to quit.

W: stands for 'warn' about the dangers of tobacco use. Despite conclusive evidence, relatively few tobacco users understand the full extent of their health risk. Graphic warnings on tobacco packaging deter tobacco use, yet only 15 countries, representing 6% of the world's population, mandate pictorial warnings (covering at least 30% of the principal surface area) and just five countries with a little over 4% of the world's people, meet the highest standards for pack warnings. More than 40% of the world's population lives in countries that do not prevent use of misleading and deceptive terms such as 'light' and 'low tar'.

E: stands for 'enforce' bans on tobacco advertising, promotion and sponsorship. Partial bans on tobacco advertising, promotion and sponsorship, do not work because the industry merely redirects its resources to other non-regulated marketing channels. Only a total ban can reduce tobacco consumption and protect people, particularly youth, from industry marketing tactics. Only 5% of the world's population currently lives in countries with comprehensive bans on tobacco advertising, promotion and sponsorship.

R: stands for 'raised' taxes on tobacco. Raising taxes and therefore prices, is the most effective way to reduce tobacco use, and especially to discourage young people from using tobacco. Only 4 countries, representing 2% of the world's population, have tax rates greater than 75% of retail price.

"Reversing this entirely preventable epidemic must now rank as a top priority for public health and for political leaders in every country of the world" said Dr Margaret Chan, Director-General of the WHO in the summary.

But without holding tobacco corporations accountable and monitoring them stringently to ensure that every component of MPOWER works with the utmost impact, reversing the global tobacco epidemic shall remain a daunting challenge.

Tobacco corporations across the world have been not only aggressively protecting and promoting their tobacco markets, particularly in the developing countries, but also trying their best to either abort or weaken the public health policies that begin to take shape in countries around the world.

"Big Tobacco's interference in health policy is one of the greatest threats to the treaty's implementation and enforcement. Philip Morris/Altria, British American Tobacco (BAT) and Japan Tobacco (JT) use their political influence to weaken, delay and defeat tobacco control legislation around the world. While the industry claims to have changed its ways, it continues to use sophisticated methods to undermine meaningful legislation" had said rightly Kathy Mulvey of Corporate Accountability International at the recent meeting last year on the global tobacco treaty – the Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (FCTC).

FCTC, or the first public health and corporate accountability treaty, is a testimony that more than 150 countries globally are committed to decimating the global tobacco epidemic. The WHO's MPOWER package of six-effective tobacco control policies gives a road map to reduce tobacco use.

The alert monitoring of tobacco corporations and holding them accountable for violating existing health policies in present and the past will complement the impact of the MPOWER package in reducing tobacco use globally.

ENDS

**************

Bobby Ramakant is the Asian Correspondent and can be reached at bobbyramakant_AT_yahoo.com

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