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Health minister puts friends of ‘Big Tobacco’ on notice

Health Minister Dr Fenton Ferguson has served notice that Jamaica will be moving soon to implement Article 5.3 of the World Health Organization’s (WHO) Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (FCTC), which will see the interaction of public officials with members of the tobacco industry coming under the microscope.

“The (tobacco) industry’s interests and public health interests are just irreconcilable, and there are public officials, including politicians, who find it easy to be associated with the industry. By so doing, it sometimes creates conflicts,” Ferguson told The Gleaner.

“You know the tobacco industry, they have been engaged in doing things in constituencies. At the same time, we have legislation that will come to Parliament, and we are not saying or accusing anyone but … the same will go for our public officials. If you are in critical areas – finance, customs, etc, association would be very sensitive, and so what we want is … not any condemnation of anyone, but to get officials to be aware,” he advised.

Ferguson, who last week delivered the keynote address during an FCTC joint needs assessment stakeholders meeting at the Terra Nova All-Suite Hotel in St Andrew, said Jamaica was well aware of the influence wielded by ‘Big Tobacco’ and remained committed to resisting possible manipulation.

“We have a formidable opponent in the form of the tobacco industry. Its power and influence are wider reaching and its approach very subtle. As minister of health, I remain undaunted by the challenges that we continue to face and recommit myself yet again to advancing the FCTC agenda,” he told the meeting.

Ferguson called for the private and public sectors to unite with civil society to, among other things, raise public awareness about the dangers of tobacco products as well as the influence of this very rich and powerful global industry.

“There are persons who genuinely are not aware of that article and this is why our public education thrust going forward will definitely have a focus on Article 5.3 and Article 13, which speaks to tobacco advertising, promotion and sponsorship, and Article 15, which speak to the illicit trade the (tobacco) industry oftentimes speaks about.”

Article 5.3 is very specific, with health experts across the world agreeing that: “The tobacco industry has operated for years with the expressed intention of subverting the role of governments and of the WHO in implementing health policies to combat the tobacco industry.”

The measures recommended in these guidelines are aimed at protecting against interference not only by the tobacco industry but also by organisations and individuals that work to further the interests of the tobacco industry.

The Gleaner, last Thursday, sought a response from local cigarette manufacturer Carreras on the impact, if any, it expected from the implementation of Article 5.3. Carreras, however, had, up to last night, not yet responded.

Meanwhile, the Pan American Health Organization has commended Jamaica for its concerted and ongoing tobacco control efforts.

“There are still many things that have to be done here, but in this moment I see a really good window of advancing in the implementation of the FCTC. Because you have political commitment, and this is one of the most important things that you need because the majority of the measures of the FCTC don’t need big investment. They need the big investment of the political will … the people who are serious enough to go against economic powers or other powers in play, to say ‘I dare to defend public health’,” Dr Adriana Blanco, regional adviser, tobacco control for PAHO, told The Gleaner.

Still, Blanco, who addressed the meeting on the progress, challenges and opportunities in regional implementation of the FCTC, expressed confidence in Jamaica’s commitment and ability to achieving, among other things, the eradication of the influence of ‘Big Tobacco’ by way of advertising, sponsorship or promotion of any of its product.

“I think that you have that a lot here (Jamaica). You have a team of people working on this that is very capable and very knowledgeable. So there is the conjunction of things that I think is putting Jamaica in a very good position to advance, and then advancing will lead the sub-region of the Caribbean that, unfortunately, has been behind in the implementation of FTCC,” Blanco told The Gleaner.

She warned Jamaicans to be alert to the inducements from the tobacco industry, especially the argument that they contribute to the economy by way of employment and tax payments, as a non-argument.

“I have no problem with them. They are doing their job. That is, making money for their stakeholders. But we are in public health and, really, there is an irreconcilable conflict of interest with our goals. If they sell cigarettes, people die …,” the senior PAHO executive argued.

Tobacco kills more than half of its users, estimated at more than five million each year, with more than 80 per cent of the world’s one billion smokers living in low and middle-income countries, like those in the Caribbean, where the burden of tobacco-related illnesses and deaths are the heaviest.

In 2010, the Big Three tobacco corporations – Phillip Morris International, British American Tobacco and Japan Tobacco – had combined revenues of more than US$200 billion, an amount greater than the combined gross domestic production of Jordan, Panama, Kenya, Cambodia, Mozambique, Bolivia, Liechtenstein, Estonia, CotÍ d’Ivoire, and Togo.

Article 5.3 addresses the need for governments to take decisive action to prevent these companies from using their financial clout to subvert their public-health programmes, especially by way of influencing public and other high-ranking officials in key industries.

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