Cancer Council Australia

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Helping the world's most vulnerable 'choose' to resist Big Tobacco

Today is World No Tobacco Day, observed each year on 31 May to help reduce a global tobacco death toll that will hit 5 million in 2012 and 8 million by 2030. Four in five of these deaths will occur in developing countries where many of those affected will die in agony because they can't access morphine.

If you are ambivalent about these incomprehensible numbers because you think smoking is a choice, please read on.

Progress on proven measures to encourage people to choose not to smoke has been invariably blocked in ways that low-cost steps to improve other areas of global health would not be stymied. Why? Smoking kills, but unlike comparable causes of death such as dysentery or malaria, it also makes billions of dollars for ruthless multinational companies.

Unsurprising then, that every time a promising tobacco control initiative is developed, an agent of the tobacco industry pops up to block it - through direct deception or any other means available. Which is a neat segue to the theme of this year's World No Tobacco Day: tobacco industry interference.

Tobacco industry interference has a long, grubby history. Even when the first US Surgeon General's report in 1964 confirmed beyond doubt the well-documented connection between smoking and a range of fatal conditions, tobacco companies disputed the evidence - and opposed anything that any government contemplated for reducing tobacco consumption.

Despite this relentless industry interference, countries like Australia have, slowly but surely, taken effective steps to protect their citizens from the health harms of smoking.

But many developing economies remain a haven for the industry. For example, activities that would seem abhorrent here ? such as sponsored rock concerts that provide free tobacco to teenagers - are common in places such as Indonesia.

Indeed, the tobacco industry's long history of seeking to addict young people - "fresh lungs", as industry marketing parlance has described them - exposes the myth that smoking is a free choice. The reality is that most long-term smokers wish they could quit, became addicted at a young age, "chose" to smoke without fully understanding the health risks or thought they could easily quit when they wanted to. Some choice.

The decision to smoke has been inculcated by billion-dollar multinational firms that glamorise a deadly addiction and have sought time and again to sabotage attempts to tell the real story about tobacco - that it kills more than half its long-term users.

With countries like Australia slowly eradicating its malign influence, the tobacco industry is turning to markets elsewhere - seeking to interfere in health policies that might cut into its profit margin.

That's why Cancer Council - and to its credit the Australian Government - supports Article 5.3 of the World Health Organisation's Framework Convention on Tobacco Control, which assists member nations in resisting the influence of tobacco companies.

Ironically, successful tobacco control policies in countries like Australia have enabled the global tobacco industry to hone its skills in preventing progress elsewhere. Misinformation, "philanthropic" donations that are an illusion of social responsibility, formidable multibillion dollar lobbying power, and ingenious marketing tricks to circumvent what limited restrictions do exist ? these are stock items in the tobacco company bag of dirty tricks.

Unless vulnerable countries recognise and repel these subversive efforts to interfere with public health policy, the accumulated tobacco death toll will reach 1 billion this century.

This opinion piece was published in The Punch on 31 May 2012.

This page was last updated on: Wednesday, May 22, 2019

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