WHO Unveils Global Plan to Fight Smoking

The World Health Organization has announced a new program to increase smoking prevention efforts in the developing world, where tobacco companies have focused their marketing efforts as developed countries place strict restrictions on the sale and promotion of tobacco.

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Over the last century, 100 million people around the world were killed by tobacco, and that's according to a report issued by the World Health Organization. The report predicts that if this quote, "Tobacco Epidemic" isn't stopped, unless steps are taken to control the use of tobacco, a billion more people could die by the end of this century. In an effort to prevent those deaths, the WHO is focusing first on developing countries with a campaign to help the governments of those countries enforce tobacco control policies. NPR's Brenda Wilson reports.

BRENDA WILSON: A global tobacco control treaty has been enforced for three years. More than 150 countries, some of the poorest in the world, signed it. It outlines policies for controlling tobacco, among them a ban on advertising. Just five percent of countries, however, have taken steps to implement the treaty. And, Dr. Doug Bettcher of the WHO says, this has not gone unnoticed by the tobacco industry.

Dr. Doug Bettcher (World Health Organization, Director of the Tobacco Free Initiative): They've scaled out their promotion marketing and sponsorship activities, they're lobbying activities, to increase their market shares.

WILSON: He says that's because the reduction in developed countries has chipped away at tobacco company profits.

Dr. Bettcher: The tobacco companies look for gaps. They look for crevices. They look for regulatory gaps.

WILSON: Even so, a few low and middle income countries have put up resistance. Uruguay, for example, has imposed strict measures.

Dr. Bettcher: Uruguay has completely banned smoking in all public places and workplaces, no designated smoking areas, as good levels of tax and prices on tobacco products are quite high. They have also good support within their healthcare system for quitting and also some quite rigorous restrictions and almost a complete ban on advertising, promotion, and sponsorship.

WILSON: The new WHO initiative would help all poor countries take just these steps. Mark File, of Philip Morris International, says the industry actually supports many of things WHO is calling for.

Mr. Mark File (Philip Morris International): We support a ban on things like outdoor media and print and television and radio. We support implementation of minimum age laws. We support mandatory health warnings. We do not support a total ban on advertising. We feel as though we should be able to communicate with adult smokers.

WILSON: Ironically, WHO's Doug Bettcher notes, the Thai government, which operates its own tobacco industry, has some of the strictest policies. And the tobacco industry insists it is not moving into markets in developing countries. British American Tobacco points out they have been in China, India, and parts of Africa since the early 1900s. As disposable income in these countries grows, they say, more people are smoking their products.

Brenda Wilson, NPR News.

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