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Dr. Judith Longstaff Mackay

Published in Time Sunday, Nov. 05, 2006

Judith Mackay
By Liam Fitzpatrick

Dr. Judith Longstaff Mackay is a witty and loquacious Englishwoman, who works as a tobacco-control advocate and senior policy adviser to the World Health Organization (WHO) out of her house in a bucolic Hong Kong suburb. Visitors are shown to a living room that, with its working fireplace and comfortable armchairs, seems to spring from the platonic ideal of a family home. As she pours you a glass of iced water it seems ludicrous to think that a leaked tobacco-industry document once named her as one of the three most dangerous people in the world. Even more absurdly, she has been described by a U.S. smokers’ rights group as “a gibbering Satan.” Mackay loves this sort of thing. She keeps a list of all the insults that smokers and tobacco executives have leveled at her over the years.

The tobacco industry has got it wrong, of course. Mackay isn’t merely one of the three most dangerous people. She’s probably the most dangerous. Just last week, financial-media tycoon and New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg announced that he will donate $125 million to five tobacco-control groups. The lion’s share is slated to go to the World Lung Foundation, earmarked for programs in developing countries, over half of which are in Asia. As the foundation’s project coordinator, Mackay will determine how that money will be spent. “For many Asian tobacco-control groups, this is the first time they will have had any significant money,” she says. Given what Mackay has achieved with negligible funding to date, it’s tantalizing to imagine what she will do now with real financial clout.

Her biggest triumph so far has been the 2003 Framework Convention on Tobacco Control, drawn up between all 192 member states of the WHO and stipulating restrictions on tobacco ads and public smoking. Mackay was instrumental in persuading states to sign it and in framing its provisions. Prior to this, she spent years advising the governments of China, Hong Kong, Indonesia, Japan, Laos, Malaysia, Thailand, South Korea, Singapore, Taiwan and Vietnam on tobacco-control policies and legislation. A gifted diplomat, she charms her way to the top, exerting influence where it matters most. She’s also unafraid of artful compromise. “If a health minister tells me that he can’t ban tobacco advertising on TV, then I’ll ask them to ban it between 4pm and 8pm, or whatever. They almost always agree.” As cigarette firms know, there is no more dangerous weapon in the fight to save smokers’ lives than the quiet persuasiveness of Judith Mackay.

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