7 February 2008
Press Conference

Department of Public Information • News and Media Division • New York


The biggest killer in the world, tobacco, was responsible for 5.4 million deaths per year -- 70 per cent of them in the developing countries -- and could kill 1 billion people in the twenty-first century, unless Governments acted now to dramatically reduce consumption, the World Health Organization said today.

Briefing correspondents at a Headquarters press conference on the World Health Organization’s latest report on the global tobacco epidemic were Douglas Bettcher, Director of the World Health Organization Free Tobacco Initiative, and Patrick Petit, Tax Officer of the National Capacity-Building Team.

Mr. Bettcher said that the data-driven report had been issued in response “to a relentless shift” in the tobacco companies’ marketing strategies, involving “trench warfare” in developing countries to escalate their markets, increase their profitability and undermine the implementation of active tobacco-control policies.

With tobacco-related deaths needless and entirely preventable, efforts to combat tobacco use, however, were gaining momentum, he said.  For the first time, the milestone report released today, presented both solid country-by-country data to guide implementation of tobacco control interventions and offered a package of cost-effective interventions to stop the tobacco epidemic.

He said that the World Health Organization’s so-called “MPOWER package” called on countries to dramatically increase their efforts, adopting six “tobacco control policies”, which involved monitoring tobacco use to understand and reverse the epidemic; protection from tobacco smoke; helping those who wanted to quit smoking; warning people about the dangers of tobacco; enforcing bans on tobacco advertising, promotion and sponsorship; and raising taxes on tobacco.

If scaled up, he stressed, those practical measures would save lives.  Countries could now easily track what they needed to do to protect their citizens.

The report’s release came at a time in public health when various partners were joining the anti-smoking movement, he said.  For example, Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s generous donation of more than $125 million to the Global Tobacco Control Programme had helped energize the country-level work, spearheaded by negotiations for the 2005 Framework Convention on Tobacco Control.  One of the most successful treaties in United Nations history, the Convention now has over 150 parties.  Next Monday, negotiations would start in Geneva on the first protocol to supplement that instrument on eliminating illicit trade and counterfeiting.

Presenting some of the statistics contained in the report, he said that it was estimated that, by 2015, tobacco would cause 50 per cent more deaths than HIV/AIDS.  Today, it already killed more people than HIV/AIDS, malaria and tuberculosis, taken together.  “And this is inexcusable, because we have within our power the possibilities to completely bend these trends and, in fact, eliminate tobacco-related deaths this century.”

However, today, according to the report, more than half the countries lacked the minimum monitoring information, only 5 per cent of the world’s population was covered by comprehensive smoke-free laws, and the global tobacco-control funding was inadequate.  The report also noted that, although some progress had been made, only 5 per cent of the world’s population was fully covered by any one of the key interventionsthat had been proven to significantly reduce tobacco use.  No country had implemented the full MPOWER package.

“We have no time to waste,” he said.  There was a global momentum, and for that reason, today, the World Health Organization’s Director-General, Margaret Chan, had issued a call to action to Governments, civil society and communities around the world, with a message that the tobacco epidemic was completely preventable and that, with the issuance of its report, the organization had now established a benchmark to monitor future progress. 

The report was not a document to gather dust on a shelf; it was the beginning of a process of strengthening data-collection, monitoring and evaluation work, scaling up technical capacity-building and advocacy work with various partners around the world, to make sure that “these very grim projections do not become true in the future”, he added.

Providing some background information, Mr. Petit said that the motivation for the report had been the shift of the tobacco epidemic from the developed to the developing world.  More than 80 per cent of tobacco-related deaths would be in low- and middle-income countries by 2030.  For example, China and India were among the world’s biggest tobacco consumption countries, and tobacco companies were now going international to better tap the potential of those markets.  The report sought to emphasize prevention and publicize the anti-smoking message.

Tobacco control had now become a development issue, he continued.  The economic burden of tobacco use was tremendous, with hundreds of billions of dollars wasted each year, due to tobacco-related diseases and loss of productivity.  In the United States, those costs amounted to some $180 billion per year.  One could just imagine what those costs would be in China in several years.  Focusing not only on health, but also on other related issues, the report sought to broaden the tobacco control audience.

To several questions on the costs of eliminating taxes and jobs provided by the tobacco industry, Mr. Petit said that the burden of tobacco use could not be compared to the taxes from tobacco companies.  The number of jobs associated with tobacco production was extremely small.  If those jobs disappeared and consumers spent their money elsewhere, more jobs would be created in other areas.  As for agricultural production, the problem of changing crops could be easily addressed.  From the economic perspective, the burden of people dying was overwhelmingly more important than the tobacco taxes.

Mr. Bettcher added that looking at the issue from only the economic viewpoint was morally repugnant.  The tobacco industry had been known to exaggerate the number of jobs attributed to that sector and, during the negotiations on the Convention, it had painted an “apocalyptic” picture of what would happen once the treaty entered force.  However, that had not happened.  While many jobs had been eliminated due to the tobacco companies’ efforts to mechanize their production and increase the profitability of their businesses, no jobs had been lost due to tobacco control.  The reality was that structural adjustments would take place over the course of many decades.

However, where the breadwinner was a smoker, some 10 to 15 per cent of family income in the poorest population groups was spent on tobacco, with that addictive habit displacing income for education, health, food and other household staples, he continued.  The report also indicated a growing rate of smoking among women, such as in South-East Asia.  That trend could be attributed to free handouts and misleading advertising by tobacco companies, which sought to convey a message of independence, empowerment and freedom associated with smoking.  The report told people:  “Look, that is not the way to get empowered -- you are going to get addicted”.  Another major message of the report was that, when people wanted to quit, they could do so.

Stringent measures could be implemented by any country, Mr. Petit said.   Thailand was a good example; Myanmar had introduced high tobacco taxes; Uruguay and New Zealand had both comprehensive smoke-free laws and high enforcement.

Asked if tobacco companies should be allowed to be part of the Global Compact, Mr. Bettcher said that the organization strongly opposed corporate social responsibility initiatives by the tobacco companies.  “There is no way that you can logically argue that a company and a product that is so defective that it kills up to half of its consumers, that somehow you can put a spin on it and that now you can become a touchy-feely kind of good corporate citizen.”  The tobacco companies were trying to make up for lost ground concerning their “criminal and deceitful” activities.  The organization had placed “a complete firewall” between itself and tobacco companies, with which it had nothing in common.

To a question about the United Nations smoking policy, he said that, in July 2006, the Economic and Social Council, following up on the recommendations of a report of the Secretary-General, had unanimously adopted a decision to recommend a complete smoking ban at all United Nations premises worldwide.  That decision had been forwarded to the General Assembly, where it “sat dormant”.  With the presentation of a further report by the Secretary-General, he hoped that that important decision would be re-introduced to the General Assembly again this year.

He added that, in 2003, however, Secretary-General Kofi Annan had issued an administrative order that the United Nations should become completely smoke-free.  “As you are aware, there are some enforcement issues here,” he said.  But international trends and perceptions had changed since 2003.  Some 80 per cent of the world’s population was now party to the Framework Convention on Tobacco Control.  Last year, the States parties had recommended, by consensus, that all countries in the world should implement the treaty in such a way that all environments, all public and workplaces should become completely smoke-free, without designated smoking areas.  To be consistent, it was time for the United Nations to become completely smoke-free, and that was what he hoped to see.

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For information media • not an official record