Ending the tobacco menace

Daily News Editorial 

Tobacco is one of the single biggest causes of death worldwide, at seven million people every year (both primary consumption and passive smoking) and rising. Despite a massive anti-tobacco campaign, cigarette consumption has actually increased in many developing countries. Scientific studies show that there are around 4,000 chemicals in cigarette smoke; at least 250 are known to cause disease and 51 of them are known to be carcinogenic. They can also be breathed in by anyone who is near a smoker. Among these chemicals are Tar, which has many chemicals which cause cancer, Carbon Monoxide which reduces the amount of oxygen in blood and of course, the highly addictive nicotine itself. Tobacco use is the most important risk factor for cancer, causing 22 per cent of global cancer deaths and 71 per cent of worldwide lung cancer deaths.

Since many of the victims of smoking are productive individuals, tobacco is increasingly being viewed as a “disease” that can affect a country’s development. Hence the World Health Organization (WHO) has announced that the theme for World No Tobacco Day (WNTD) which falls today is “Tobacco – a threat to development”. The campaign launched for WNTD by the WHO and its partners this year is meant to demonstrate the threats that the tobacco industry poses to the sustainable development of all countries, including the health and economic well-being of their citizens. All countries have been encouraged to include tobacco control in their national responses to 2030 Sustainable Development Agenda (SDGs).Image result for cartoon on tobacco

From his days as Health Minister, President Maithripala Sirisena is in the vanguard of the campaign against tobacco consumption, earning the wrath of multinational tobacco giants in the process. He has initiated several programmes aimed at reducing tobacco consumption. Sri Lanka is one of the few countries where smoking is on the decline, helped no doubt by a very high tax band (73%) on tobacco, which is actually more than WHO’s guideline of 70 per cent. Through increasing cigarette taxes worldwide by just US$1, an extra US$ 190 billion could be raised for development projects. High tobacco taxes contribute to revenue generation for governments, reduce demand for tobacco, and offer an important revenue stream to finance development activities.

Higher taxes on tobacco products are certainly effective, but this has also led to more attempts at smuggling tobacco. This adversely affects the Government as well as the smokers. The smugglers naturally do not pay any taxes to the Government and those who smoke these cigarettes (which are cheaper than the legally available cigarettes) face a more severe risk of contracting cancer or other diseases as the illicit manufacturers do not follow the quality control standards followed by the legal manufacturers. The Government must make every effort to crack down on these smugglers at the points of entry.

The Government’s moves to introduce plain packaging and graphic warnings and very soon, restrict the sale of loose cigarettes will also help. The latter is very important, because only a very few can afford to spend a minimum of Rs.1,000 on a pack of cigarettes at once. This will automatically reduce tobacco consumption. Sri Lanka can take further cues from the UK and Europe, where even packs containing 10 or 12 cigarettes can no longer be sold. E-cigarettes are just entering the mainstream here, but stricter regulations must be enacted from now onwards. The UK has also banned so-called “menthol” cigarettes from 2020.

How does tobacco use affect development? Tobacco use costs national economies enormously through increased health-care costs and decreased productivity. It worsens health inequalities and exacerbates poverty, as the poorest people spend less on essentials such as food, education and health care. Some 80 percent of premature deaths from tobacco occur in low- or middle-income countries, which face increased challenges to achieving their development goals.

Tobacco growing requires large amounts of pesticides and fertilizers, which can be toxic and pollute water supplies. Each year, tobacco growing uses 4.3 million hectares of land, resulting in global deforestation between 2% and 4%. Tobacco manufacturing also produces over two million tonnes of solid waste. Did you know that each year, 4.5 trillion cigarette butts are littered worldwide (by far the most littered item), with a significant percentage finding their way (surprisingly) to the oceans? Clearly, tobacco is no longer just a personal or even a simple community health issue. It is a global scourge that also affects sustainability and development. The problem is only likely to get worse, particularly as smoking rates continue to escalate in many low- and middle-income countries.

While the WHO Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (WHO FCTC) guides the global fight against the tobacco epidemic, individual countries have to do more to fight the slick marketing campaigns of the tobacco companies that seek younger consumers. Fortunately, more than half the world’s countries (including Sri Lanka), representing nearly 40% of the world’s population (2.8 billion people), have implemented at least one of the WHO FCTC’s most cost-effective measures to the highest level. The Government must thus continue its progressive anti-tobacco measures to rid the country of this socio-economic menace.