Increased taxes, regulation key to fighting tobacco ‘epidemic,’ says UN health agency

Director-General of the World Health Organization (WHO) Margaret Chan. UN Photo/Rick Bajornas

20 October 2014 – The implementation of higher taxes on tobacco products and greater regulation for electronic cigarettes are among the decisions passed by a United Nations-backed conference amid comprehensive efforts to clamp down on the tobacco “epidemic” and save millions of lives, the World Health Organization (WHO) has announced.

In a press release marking the conclusion of the Sixth Session of the Conference of the Parties to the WHO Framework Convention on Tobacco Control, the UN health agency underscored the passing of Article 6 – a “landmark” decision taken by delegates in an effort to reduce the global consumption of tobacco, noting that taxation is “a very effective tool” for influencing the prices of tobacco and its demand.

“Higher taxes usually lead to higher prices, which in turn lead to lower consumption,” declared the WHO press release which added that the new regulations provided for tax rates to be “monitored, increased and adjusted annually” and be taxed in “a comparable way to prevent substitutions of the use of one product with another.”

Speaking at the opening of the Conference on 13 October, WHO Director-General, Dr. Margaret Chan, anticipated the achievements made at the Conference over the weekend by spotlighting her agency’s role as the tobacco industry’s “number one enemy” which she claimed as “a badge of honour.” But, she warned, the industry had accelerated its efforts to undermine the curbing of tobacco use and the application of more stringent regulations.

“In an especially worrisome trend, the tobacco industry is using bilateral investment treaties to try to deter governments from protecting the health of their citizens through strong tobacco control measures that are known to work,” Dr. Chan stated, pointing to industry claims filed against Uruguay’s warning labels and branding measures, as well as efforts against “the robust and courageous actions” taken by Australia in plain packaging.

“Their agenda, at least, is easy to see: to undermine your power, your efforts to adopt the robust, expert-driven proposed guidelines on tobacco tax and price policy. These guidelines, when used to implement the treaty’s Article 6, will protect children and young people, in particular, from initiating tobacco use,” Dr. Chan continued.

“They could not care less if they are killing children,” she added. “Again, don’t be fooled by them.”

A number of other measures were also adopted by the Conference including providing technical support to the Parties and engaging with international organizations on the matters of tobacco companies’ influence as well as an assessment of the Convention’s impact on the tobacco “epidemic,” the WHO confirmed.

In addition, the agency noted another “milestone in tobacco control” with the adoption of the decision on electronic nicotine delivery systems, or electronic cigarettes, which calls for regulations along the lines of policies concerning other tobacco products, including banning or restricting promotion, advertising and sponsorship of electronic cigarettes.

Overall, the Conference acknowledged that the “heaviest burden of tobacco related diseases is borne by the most vulnerable population groups” and called on all Parties “to strengthen international collaboration on tobacco control and attain a voluntary global target of 30 per cent prevalence reduction by 2025.”

“We have abundant evidence from multiple sources that implementation of the Framework Convention brings both immediate and long-term improvements for health,” Dr. Chan told delegates last week.

“As I said in 2011, when the UN General Assembly – your governments – issued its landmark resolution on noncommunicable diseases, let me quote: ‘Full implementation of the WHO Framework Convention on Tobacco Control would deal the greatest single preventive blow to all of these diseases.’”

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