World No Tobacco Day

World No Tobacco Day is our chance to stand up against tobacco, and the industry that profits from it. Because if trends continue, tobacco will kill 1,000 million people in the 21st century.

When we are discussing health policies, improving people’s health should be the ultimate goal. We have to be vigilant that selfish economic arguments do not jeopardise our work. In terms of tobacco we have already committed to placing health above the economic interests of one industry. The UK and 25 other EU countries, as well as the EU itself, have signed the WHO’s Framework Convention on Tobacco Control. A key part of what is the world’s first international health treaty is Article 5.3, stating that the tobacco industry should be excluded from the development of tobacco control policies. In the words of the World Health Organisation ‘there is a fundamental and irreconcilable conflict between the tobacco industry’s and public health policy interests’.

However, today a report was launched showing that the tobacco industry’s voice is being listened to. When the EU was trying to ban cigarettes from being labelled ‘mild’ or ‘light’, and bring in larger warning labels, tactics of ‘block, amend or delay’ were employed. Tobacco companies tried to challenge the legal basis for the law, claimed that it contravened international trade laws, or that it would have adverse economic consequences.

We are now in the process of revising the Tobacco Products Directive, and I am extremely concerned that the tobacco industry has already been successful in its first goal – to delay the proposal from the European Commission. The Commission says it needs to work on the impact assessment in more detail. Of course the focus of that assessment is the economic impact of stricter tobacco control measures.

What we should be focusing on is the huge long term benefits for public health if we introduce some of these more progressive measures. We should extend the ban on tobacco marketing to the product’s packaging; remove all branding and replace it with large pictorial health warnings. Image is irrefutably a key reason young people start smoking in the first place, and removing branding would clearly reduce the appeal of tobacco. The effect standardised packets would have on sales of cigarettes in the long run is clear – best demonstrated by the tobacco industry’s fierce opposition to the measure. These kinds of measures would not mean smoking rates would suddenly fall overnight, or that workers employed in growing, packaging or producing tobacco would suddenly lose their jobs. Instead it would be part of a gradual trend towards making tobacco less attractive and socially acceptable, leading to less young people taking up smoking in the first place. Over time that means less avoidable cancers, less unnecessary deaths, and less strain on our health service.

Tobacco is the leading cause of preventable deaths in the EU. If we were talking about a prescription drug that killed 650,000 Europeans in one year, or a chemical in a cleaning product that killed one in two of its users, the policy response would be very different. The economic consequences for the industry involved would not be considered. Unfortunately we are still in a situation where the tobacco industry wields a lot of influence, both directly and indirectly, by disseminating information, and misinformation, to producers, retailers and workers. However, it is our duty to take on the power of the industry, and fight to protect the health of Europe’s citizens.

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