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Tobacco control: WHO Director-General addresses history-making conference

Dr Margaret Chan
Director-General of the World Health Organization

Address to the Fifth Session of the Conference of the Parties to the WHO Framework Convention on Tobacco Control
Seoul, Republic of Korea
12 November 2012

Excellencies, distinguished delegates, ladies and gentlemen,

I am delighted to address this fifth session of the Conference of the Parties to the WHO Framework Convention on Tobacco Control. Our shared goal is to see this treaty fully implemented, to see its powers fully used to reduce tobacco consumption and exposure to tobacco smoke, everywhere in the world.

As this session opens, support for the Convention has grown to 176 Parties, representing nearly 90% of the world’s population. This shows the scale of the impact you can have.

Since the treaty came into force seven years ago, the work of this conference has given more than ten articles of the Convention teeth and traction by creating supplementary instruments.

You have done so in a spirit of solidarity, fully mindful of the transnational nature of the tobacco threat, and fully aware of the need to build implementation capacity among Parties with meager resources. Success depends on a capacity to implement, everywhere.

In crafting guidelines and recommendations, this body reaches well beyond the domains of medicine and public health. You gather evidence and support from multiple sectors, like trade, finance, agriculture, education, labour, the environment, law enforcement, and the judicial system.

The work of this conference is a model of multisectoral collaboration but also of an interagency response, as you will be discussing during this session.

The Convention is a powerful instrument for prevention, but also for international cooperation. This importance has been recognized in recent political declarations on noncommunicable diseases and on the social determinants of health.

You are inspired by the preventive power of what you are doing. I can think of no other undertaking that can make such a huge contribution to better health in every corner of the world. And that includes the health of young children and unborn babies.

This has always been one of the anti-tobacco campaign’s most compelling arguments. Tobacco use is the epidemiological equivalent of a drive-by shooting. It hurts the innocent bystanders as well as those held captive by an addiction that damages their health.

You are united by a shared spirit of determination but also out of necessity, given the nature of the opposition, of the forces that are equally determined to undermine, circumvent, and interfere.

The tobacco industry behaves like a corrosive substance that can eat through, or seep through, any crack or fissure in the armour of our defences. Our response must be to seal all these cracks and fissures, one by one, with science and evidence, supported by instruments for applying this knowledge and backed by the rule of law.

This is what you are doing. This is what makes the work of this conference so monumentally important. With the guidelines and recommendations you put forward, and now with the first protocol before you for approval, you are hemming in the enemy, cutting off its options, giving it less space to manoeuvre.

As we know from experience, the tobacco industry will challenge the best science, promote arguments that have nothing to do with the facts, and fund front groups to give these arguments a cloak of legitimacy. This industry will lobby lawmakers, woo the press and, now, fund plaintiffs to challenge legislation.

In a recent and most disturbing trend, the showdown between governments, seeking to safeguard the health of their citizens, and industry, seeking to maintain its profits, has moved to the courtroom.

I know you will want to join me in congratulating Australia and Norway for recent rulings that upheld the legality of their tough control measures. We are united in our support for other countries facing similar interference.

Of course, industry will have its day and its say in the media. Australia’s law is not a good one, they say. It will be a bonanza for the black market and benefit no one but organized crime, including groups that support terrorists. Let them rattle their sabres.

Australia’s law mandating plain packaging, a world first, is based on rigorous research. It peels the glamour off a package full of harm and replaces it with the truth. It will have vast benefits for health.

I want to thank civil society for doing so much to counter industry’s claims with the facts, to expose their duplicity to the public eye.

As recent examples, you have documented industry’s role in promoting illicit trade in tobacco products, despite all the public denials. You have documented industry’s role in supporting front groups that purport to speak for tobacco farmers. In reality, industry practices keep these farmers trapped at the bottom end of the supply chain.

Such reports extend the public resonance of items that will be discussed during this session.

Ladies and gentlemen,

You have 25 items on your agenda.

You will consider a report on progress in implementation of the treaty. The report indicates which articles and provisions are most readily implemented and where countries are facing difficulties and need more support. The report also demonstrates, for everyone to see, that the treaty is having an impact.

Research is also on our side. Evidence of the substantial health benefits of measures set out in the treaty continues to mount.

You will look at options and experiences for using price and tax measures to reduce demand, and consider the complex issues surrounding efforts to help tobacco farmers switch to economically sustainable alternatives.

You have before you state-of-the art reports on recommended responses to smokeless tobacco products and electronic nicotine delivery systems. Again, industry is seeping through the cracks.

You will also be considering the Convention’s first draft protocol, aimed at eliminating illicit trade in tobacco products, which awaits your approval. After four years of negotiations, this is a game-changing treaty, and a potentially history-making session.

WHO and its Member States gave birth to the Convention. The Convention took on a life of its own and now gives birth to another treaty. This is how we build ambitions in public health. This is how we hem in the enemy.

The protocol gives the world an orderly rules-based instrument for countering and eventually eliminating a sophisticated international criminal activity that costs a lot, also for health.

Illicit trade is bad for health because it circumvents measures, like taxes and price increases, that are known to reduce demand. In other words, illicit trade seriously compromises effective implementation of the treaty.

As the chair of the Intergovernmental Negotiating Body noted, the fact that consensus on the text was achieved is due to “the commitment and energy of everyone involved, and a willingness to seek solutions and take hard decisions on difficult issues.”

With this spirit, in this historical battle against a ruthless industry that quite literally cannot afford to lose, I sincerely believe the good guys will win in the end.

Thank you.

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