Why we must rein in ‘Big Tobacco’ to achieve MDGs

For the last six months, the tobacco industry has been lobbying governments to oppose the implementation of the World Health Organisation convention outlawing the use of commercial flavours in tobacco products.

To a casual observer, this was a campaign to protect the livelihoods of poor farmers in developing countries.

The industry has been arguing that a ban on the use of the flavours and colours as recommended by the guidelines on implementation of Articles 9 and 10 of the Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (FCTC), would mean a loss of market for burley tobacco, whose naturally harsh taste remains almost unpalatable without addition of artificial sweeteners and flavours.

The truth is that adding sweeteners and flavours makes it easier for the youth to start using tobacco products and more difficult for them to stop.

The truth is that adding sweeteners and flavours makes it easier for the youth to start using tobacco products and more difficult for them to stop.

The two articles provide for regulation and disclosure of the contents of tobacco products. Through well orchestrated arguments, the industry misled the general public, farmers, government officials and even economic blocs into thinking that banning the use of flavours in tobacco products is a western agenda to perpetuate poverty in Africa by reducing demand for its products on the world market.

The truth is that adding sweeteners and flavours makes it easier for the youth to start using tobacco products and more difficult for them to stop. This translates into more addicts, more demand for tobacco and higher profits for the industry.

Unfortunately, it also means more people suffer from the medical, social, environmental and economic effects of tobacco.

In order to protect present and future generations from the consequences of tobacco farming, processing, use and exposure, the WHO facilitated the development of the FCTC, which came into effect in 2005.

WHO’s efforts to regulate contents of tobacco products were stepped up in February 2006 when the Conference of Parties to the FCTC meeting in Geneva, Switzerland, set up a working group to draft guidelines for implementation of the two articles.

The guidelines are to be used by governments for effective regulation and disclosure of the contents of tobacco products. While public health concerns make it necessary to regulate the contents of tobacco products, the tobacco industry would like to be left free to enhance the taste, smell, texture and general appearance of its products by adding colours and sweeteners.

The industry’s argument that the world economy desperately needs tobacco taxes is as misleading as it is old and inaccurate.

Farming, processing and use of tobacco is responsible for deforestation, food insecurity, soil infertility, poverty, malnutrition, illiteracy and innumerable diseases that place a crippling burden on health systems worldwide.

Diseases caused by tobacco use and exposure kill people in their most productive years and divert money from constructive use. At the 2000 United Nations Millennium summit, world governments agreed to eight Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) to be met by 2015.

All 192 member states and at least 23 international organisations have adopted these goals that form the basis for global development and public health policy. Negative effects of tobacco are partly responsible for failure by most developing countries to realise the MDGs.

Failure to implement the FCTC will ultimately present serious obstacles in achieving the MDGs. As such, it is necessary for every country to implement the FCTC in order to achieve the MDGs.

After losing in its quest to add flavours to cigarettes and other tobacco products, the industry is gearing itself up to fight the adoption of guidelines on tobacco taxation at the Conference of Parties in South Korea in 2012. This calls for all to unite in order to save the world from the devastating effects of tobacco.

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