Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation

Tobacco Policies Are Saving Lives

July 19, 2013

Countries are making remarkable progress in adopting tobacco control policy that saves lives.    2.3 billion people are now covered by at least one of the strongest evidence-based tobacco control policies, and adoption of these new rules between 2007 and 2010 alone is estimated to have saved more than 7 million lives.    Tobacco is a lethal product that kills over half its users, and the tobacco industry is on a mission to gain market share in developing countries and thwart policy progress.   It is important to stay focused and support implementation of proven tobacco control measures, so that we prevent a deadly tobacco epidemic in those countries that can least afford it.

This week, the WHO launched its fourth Report on the Global Tobacco Epidemic - a comprehensive country-level report that tracks progress in adopting and implementing evidence-based tobacco control policy.

Tobacco use is the leading cause of preventable death globally. It kills nearly 6 million people and causes more than half a trillion dollars of economic damage each year. The spread of the epidemic can be avoided with the country action outlined in the WHO Report.

According to the Report, from 2010 - 2012, countries made significant policy progress including tobacco tax increases; smoke-free public places; tobacco advertisement, promotion and sponsorship bans; graphic warning labels on tobacco products; and cessation treatments. One-third of the world’s population is now covered by at least one of these policies - more than double the number five years ago.

Tobacco tax provides a unique opportunity to save lives and generate much needed revenue. The Philippines approved a landmark “sin tax” last December that will save 479,000 lives and generate over USD $4 billion from tobacco tax. Revenue will mostly support the nation’s popular healthcare plan, with some allocated to re-tool tobacco farmers. 

Australia’s Tobacco Plain Packaging Act, the first of its kind in the world, went into effect in December 2012. The Act requires cigarettes to be sold in plain grey packaging with graphic warning labels, but without company logos – effectively removing the last form of tobacco advertising. Australia’s High Court dismissed tobacco industry challenges to the law, but the nation still faces fierce litigation; governments worldwide are watching Australia defend its right to protect its people, and are exploring the adoption of similar plain packaging regulations.

In light of this progress, tobacco companies continue to spend billions of dollars to promote their products and increase market share.  They are targeting the developing world where incomes are rising, populations are growing, and knowledge on tobacco’s harms remains low. A global survey released this week by the Government of Nigeria shows that 5.6% of adults smoke, yet only 20% know that smoking causes serious illness. This is both an enormous prevention opportunity for Nigerian leadership, and an open market for British American Tobacco. Nigeria’s President seized the moment and is calling for a strict law to protect citizens.

The WHO Framework Convention on Tobacco Control requires its 177 signatory countries to implement and enforce tobacco control policies; this weeks’ WHO Report plays an important role in tracking those commitments.  We commend the perseverance and courage of the many leaders it took to secure these important life-saving achievements - governments, civil society organizations, the public, WHO, the Bloomberg Initiative, academia, business leaders, and many more.

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