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Roxon to talk tough on tobacco at UN

Belinda Tasker, AAP Medical Correspondent  September 16, 2011 – 11:39AM AAP

Health Minister Nicola Roxon will encourage other countries to follow Australia’s push for plain-packaged tobacco at a major United Nations summit on chronic diseases next week.

Ms Roxon and Foreign Minister Kevin Rudd will join dozens of heads of state at the UN General Assembly’s two-day summit on the world’s biggest killers – cancer, diabetes, heart disease and lung disease – which begins in New York on Monday.

Chronic diseases are the leading cause of death around the world and claimed the lives of 36 million people in 2008.

Health experts have been calling for urgent action to address the issue amid fears the number of deaths could reach 52 million annually within two decades.

With lifestyle factors such as smoking playing a key role in the rise in chronic disease, Australia’s legal battle with the tobacco industry over plain cigarette packs has attracted headlines around the world ahead of the summit.

Ms Roxon said she hoped to share the government’s challenges with the tobacco industry in trying to introduce laws for all cigarettes to be sold in drab olive-brown packs from mid-2012.

“I hope this UN meeting sees other countries around the world join Australia in staring down the misleading and intimidating tactics of big tobacco,” she said.

“The Australian government believes there is a strong commitment among countries to create an agreement that galvanises global efforts to stem the tide of non-communicable diseases.”

While Australia is pushing ahead with its new laws, which are before parliament, the European Union this week appeared to steer itself away from following suit.

European Union politicians on Thursday voted against amending a joint resolution communicating the EU’s position ahead of the UN summit to say it would introduce standardised cigarette packaging.

Instead, the resolution emphasises the need for an immediate, effective revision of the Tobacco Products Directive.

It is only the second time the UN has attempted to tackle a major health issue since its creation in 2001 of the global fund to fight HIV AIDS, tuberculosis and malaria.

Some health groups have criticised officials taking part in the UN summit for failing to agree on specific goals for delegates to consider including deadlines for reducing certain diseases and risk factors such as smoking.

Australian Chronic Disease Prevention Alliance Franca Marine said urgent action was needed as diseases such as cancer and diabetes were now taking more lives than infectious diseases.

“Originally many people thought of chronic diseases as wealthy country diseases but they are becoming more prevalent in lower- to middle-income countries,” she said.

“Those low- to middle-income countries don’t have the same health systems and infrastructure to support healthy lifestyles so people are developing these diseases earlier.

“Most public health groups support the UN meeting but what we would like to see come out of it are some definite targets or action but it’s a very deeply political process trying to get these sorts of countries to agree.”

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