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The World Health Organization ( WHO ) is calling on countries to halt a tobacco epidemic by adopting plain packaging.

Tobacco use has continues to be a major public health issue across the WHO South-East Asia region, in which nearly 246 million people in 11 countries of the region continue to smoke tobacco and close to 290 million use it in smokeless forms, data shows.

Tobacco has caused the deaths of 1.3 million people across the region every year, or equivalent to 150 fatalities per hour.

“The message isn’t getting through: Tobacco kills. A good way to amplify it and disrupt the psychology of tobacco consumption is making the plain packaging of tobacco products, also known as standardized packaging, mandatory,” WHO South-East Asia regional director Poonam Khetrapal Singh said in her remarks during the celebration of World No Tobacco Day on Monday.

The WHO says the aesthetic impact of plain packaging is significant as studies show that it has a tangible effect on the desirability of tobacco products.

Plain packaging, it explains, means branding and promotional information is removed from tobacco packaging and replaced by graphic-health warnings, dull color combinations, a brand name and a product or manufacturer’s name in standardized font.

Tobacco companies are increasingly relying on market presence in developing economies, including those of the South-East Asia region as smoking levels decline in high-income countries, the WHO says.

“This presence must be resisted. Tobacco’s impact goes beyond public health, stymieing the growth prospects of developing economies and burdening taxpayers and health systems whose finite resources could be better used elsewhere,” said Singh.

She said 11 member countries of the WHO South-East Asia region, including parties to the WHO’s Framework Convention on Tobacco Control, had developed and implemented tobacco control legislation. However, children, youth and adults continued to be subjected to pro-tobacco messages from the media and also encounter product advertising at outlets where tobacco was sold, she added.

“Commitment to stop the tobacco epidemic must be renewed,” said Singh.

The 7th Session of the Conference of Parties to the Framework Convention is set to be held in India in November this year.

“[…] It provides an opportunity to emphasize the importance of plain packaging and open discussions on its uptake in the region. Plain packaging is one of the easiest ways to help our friends and family live longer and healthier lives and is an initiative that will only gain momentum,” said Singh. ( ebf )

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