TOPICS : Getting tough on tobacco smoke

The global anti-tobacco movement has just armed itself with tough new language to clear the air at work places, restaurants and bars of tobacco smoke. The breakthrough, secured at a week-long conference in Bangkok, was endorsed by 146 countries. They backed a call for “strong guidelines” to snuff out second-hand smoke in public areas. The guidelines will offer governments a “roadmap” to establish smoke-free environments in a bid to protect the health of non-smokers and wean smokers away from their habit.

“These guidelines will be implemented to counteract the myths of the tobacco industry that second-hand smoke is only a nuisance,” said Dr Douglas Bettcher, head of the WHO Tobacco Free Initiative, at the conference. An estimated 700 million children are exposed to the fumes of “deadly second-hand smoke,” he pointed out, adding that “200,000 people die every year due to second-hand smoke at their workplace.” The push to create a smoke-free environment is a trend that has picked up momentum in the past three to four years due to increased public perception about this issue, said Dr Haik Nikogosian, head of the WHO’s office for the Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (FCTC).

The FCTC is the world’s first public health treaty that came into force on Feb. 27, 2005. At present, 147 countries have ratified it of the 168 nations who have signed it. It was adopted by the 192 member-states of the Geneva-based global health body at the 56th World Health Assembly in 2003.

But delegates from developing countries expect the road ahead to be a bumpy one, given the way in which tobacco multinationals have been muscling their way in to capture the market in the South as they face opposition in the developed world due to stiffer anti-tobacco laws and a trend against smoking.

“It is a fact that tobacco companies are expanding in the developing world as they lose their traditional markets in the developed world. You can see this all across Africa,” Dr Ahmed Ogwell, a delegate from Kenya, said.

Public health experts and anti-tobacco NGOs used the Bangkok event to raise concern about how increasingly vulnerable economically weaker developing countries are to pressure from financially powerful tobacco giants. The 10 countries in South-east Asia are typical of this shift, where one of the poorest countries in the region, Laos, has over 1.5 million adults and youth who smoke out of a population of 6.5 million, according to a report by the Southeast Asia Tobacco Control Alliance.

But the campaign against smoking has grown, with increasing evidence pointing to tobacco consumption being the leading cause of preventable death across the globe. “With about 5 million tobacco-related deaths per year, no

other consumer product is as dangerous or kills as many people as tobacco,” argues the ‘Civil Society Monitoring of the Framework Convention on Tobacco Control: 2007 Status Report.’ — IPS