WHO slams tobacco industry for interference in cessation efforts

The UN public health agency warned its member countries to not fall for such firms’ campaigns that are to manipulate the perception of tobacco products

By Banjot Kaur
Published: Sunday 28 July 2019
Photo: Getty Images
Photo: Getty Images Photo: Getty Images

Tobacco companies are using anti-smoking campaigns to manipulate users’ perception of tobacco products, warned the World Health Organization’s (WHO) latest Global Tobacco Epidemic report. The WHO has asked all its member countries to not fall in this trap.

For example, the UN public health agency warned all countries that Smoke-Free World, a campaign by tobacco giant Philip Morris International’s (PMI) foundation, will do no good to them.

“The Foundation for a Smoke-Free World (FSFW) is funded solely by tobacco giant Philip Morris International (PML) with a commitment of $80 million annually over 12 years. It is part of an ongoing industry strategy to influence the scientific and policy agendas,” according to the WHO report.

“The foundation funds research programmes and studies that are supportive of products marketed by PML and other producers as “reduced risk”, and offers funding to governments, universities, UN agencies, other international bodies and the public health community to encourage smokers to use such products, presumably in place of traditional cigarettes,” read the report.

In fact, the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare wrote to chief secretaries of all states to not partner with FSFW in any manner, whatsoever.  The WHO had also, two year ago, written to all its member states to beware of this campaign.

This was not the only way the industry was “interfering” in the fight against tobacco. It also gets involved in political and legislative processes, fabricates support through front groups, influences scientific and policy agendas, makes unproven claims and discredit proven science and exaggerate the economic importance of the industry saying a large number of people would be without jobs if anti-tobacco policies continue.

World economy’s tobacco burden

In 2012, global healthcare spending on smoking-attributable diseases was $422 billion. “If loss of productivity due to smoking-attributable illnesses and deaths are taken into account, this cost is estimated to be as high as $1436 billion, with almost 40 per cent of these costs incurred in low- and middle-income countries,” highlighted the report.

“Reducing tobacco consumption through implementation of comprehensive tobacco control measures — including offering help to quit — can ensure large savings for countries as well as for ex-tobacco users,” the report added.

Tobacco is also considered to the prime driver of non-communicable diseases (NCDs) like hypertension, cardiovascular diseases, pulmonary diseases etc.

WHO member states had also agreed to work together to reduce the morbidity and mortality caused by NCDs in 2011 and encouraging tobacco cessation was an important part.

“The agreed target for tobacco control is a 30 per cent relative reduction in the prevalence of current (daily and occasional) tobacco use in persons aged 15 years and above between 2010 and 2025, which was endorsed by the World Health Assembly in May 2013. To achieve this, it is not only essential to prevent the uptake of tobacco, but also to ensure that more tobacco users quit,” according to the report.

While some countries have made steady progress in helping tobacco consumers quit, a number of countries have not, said the WHO in the report.

“Since the last such WHO report, two years ago, progress has been steady with 15 countries that previously had no best-practice measures taking action to reach best-practice level on one or more measures, and 21 countries that had at least one measure in place adding at least one more,” highlighted the report.

While this is encouraging, tobacco cessation support worldwide remains low and many people do not have adequate cessation support. Currently, only about 30 per cent of the world’s population has access to appropriate tobacco cessation services.

Brief advice in primary care should be included in universal health coverage to potentially benefit 80 per cent of all tobacco users a year. Currently, only 18 countries are providing fully cost-covered tobacco cessation support in most of their primary care facilities, the report added.

India does not fall under this category. The country earned praise for one of its programmes of tobacco cessation through messages on mobile phones.

On interviewing, 12,502 Quit Now subscribers after four to six months of registration, the WHO found that of the participants who had ever used tobacco, 19.1 per cent had abstained in the preceding 30 days.

“Preliminary results show it has great potential to reach people who need support to quit tobacco,” the report noted.

The WHO, in the report, also lamented the fact that the world did not do much on tobacco taxation which is considered the most important measure to reduce consumption of tobacco.

Studies after studies have shown, as this WHO report too says, that a 10 per cent price increase will reduce consumption by 5 per cent in low- and middle-income countries (up to 8 per cent in some instances) and by about 4 per cent in high-income countries.

“Since 2016, 10 countries have raised taxes to a level at or above 75 per cent of the price of the most sold brand of cigarettes. Seven of them were middle-income countries and the other three high-income. No low-income countries have raised taxes to this limit since 2016. Indeed, only one low-income country (Liberia) increased taxes enough since 2016 to move one category closer to best practice level,” read the report.

In India, which stands second in tobacco consumption in the world, currently the rate is 54 per cent. 

“There has been incredible progress in the 11 years since MPOWER (a strategy adopted in 2008 by all signatories of Framework Convention on Tobacco Control to tackle the menace) monitoring began, including millions of lives saved, but it is only the beginning. It is important that we all recommit to ensuring all the people of the world are protected fully from the great harms of the tobacco epidemic,” the report concluded.

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