February 28, 2010

WHO Criticizes Government Action On Tobacco

The World Health Organization said on Friday that governments should do more to protect workers in bars, restaurants and the entertainment sector from harmful smoke.

The WHO said that developing countries are the new frontier for tobacco companies, where smoking rates remain high among poor people in affluent countries.

According to the United Nations agency, tobacco kills over 5 million people every year from cardiovascular disease, cancers, diabetes and other illnesses, including about 600,000 from second-hand smoke.

"Most alarming of all, tobacco use is actually increasing in many developing countries. If Big Tobacco is in retreat in some parts of the world, it is on the march in others," Dr. Margaret Chan, WHO director-general, told a meeting to review implementation of a landmark tobacco treaty five years after it came into force.

"As we all know, the tobacco industry is ruthless, devious, rich and powerful," she said.

The Framework Convention on Tobacco Control is the world's first and only public health treaty and has been ratified by 168 countries.

This treaty obligates governments to protect their population from exposure to tobacco smoke and reduce demand through price and tax measures, regulating packaging and labeling on tobacco products.

However, WHO has revealed holes in implementing the treaty.

"For example, just slightly more than 5 percent of the world's population is protected by national smoke-free laws," Chan told Reuters.

Countries like Indonesia, the United States and Zimbabwe are among those that have stayed outside the pact.

A WHO report said that many countries have implemented smoking bans in government buildings and health-care facilities, but have much lower rates in the entertainment and hospitality sectors.

Chan said that tobacco taxes are the most effective way to reduce tobacco use.  However, only 21 countries have implemented tobacco tax rates greater than 75 percent of the retail price.

According to the WHO, less than one third of treaty members restrict advertising, promotion and sponsorship of tobacco products.

Chan said that tobacco companies had argued that the treaty threatened the livelihoods of tobacco farmers, advertising revenues, and the survival of restaurants, bars and sporting events.

Activists groups including Corporate Accountability International said in a statement that the main threat to fully implementing the treaty remains interference by the tobacco industry.

"Big Tobacco promotes its addictive and deadly product to kids with images like Philip Morris's Marlboro Man, by sponsoring rock concerts and sporting events, and by putting tobacco brand names and logos on everything from T-shirts to patio umbrellas," they said.

Philip Morris International, which sells Marlboro cigarettes, declined to comment to Reuters on Chan's statements.  However, it said it supports regulation and many of the treaty provisions.

"We really hope the process focuses on implementing effective regulations that work, such as measures to reduce youth smoking and illicit trade in tobacco products, to reduce harm caused by smoking," spokesman Ben Russell told Reuters.

A British American Tobacco spokesman criticized the WHO's unwillingness to talk to the industry.

"The WHO thinks its aims such as encouraging retail display bans and plain packaging will make a difference. There is no evidence to show this - it just drives illicit trade," he said.


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