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Mary Ann Benitez in Manila

Hong Kong Standard Tuesday, October 11, 2011

United Nations health chief Margaret Chan Fung Fu-chun, has come out fighting against tobacco giants, urging Asian governments not to be cowed by the industry but instead maintain life-saving efforts against smoking.

Big tobacco’s efforts to subvert the World Health Organization’s framework convention on tobacco control “are now out in the open and extremely aggressive,” WHO director general Chan said.

The former Hong Kong health official was speaking at yesterday’s opening of the 62nd regional committee meeting of WHO Western Pacific, which includes the SAR and the mainland.

Chan recounted how firms have filed lawsuits. One target, she noted, is Australia, the first nation to legislate for plain cigarette packets to hit marketing efforts.

Such dirty tactics “are deliberately designed to instil fear in other countries wishing to introduce similarly tough tobacco control measures,” she said.

Delegates in Manila will today review progress in tackling non-communicable diseases after a UN General Assembly declaration last month. Chan helped push UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon to put non-communicable diseases on the agenda for only the second time in its history – after HIV/aids.

She said tobacco is the common risk factor for non-communicable diseases such as cancer, diabetes and heart disease – “which break the bank.” That referred to a study published last month. It concluded that costs of treating cancer are “now unsustainable in even the richest nations,” Chan


Urging WHO members to unite in anti-smoking efforts and back ideas like Australia’s on packaging, Chan added: “It is horrific to think that an industry known for its dirty tricks and dirty laundry could be allowed to trump what is clearly in the public’s best interest.”

Talking yesterday about Australia’s move to force tobacco companies to use the same dull packets whatever the brand was the chief of its Department of Health and Ageing, Jane Halton.

“It is fair to say that we are being targeted by what can only be described as subversive and disgraceful tactics by the tobacco industry, including using every available vehicle and opportunity to try and intimidate and/or threaten us to withdraw the legislation,” she said.

Hong Kong Director of Health Lam Ping-yan said the SAR will be “comrades and partners” with Australia and commended it for its determination to introduce plain packaging.

In Hong Kong, people aged 15 and above who have been daily smokers dropped to 11.1 percent – among the lowest in the region – and Lam said more money will go to expanding the network of quit-smoking clinics.

The WHO said in May that tobacco will kill six million people this year, including 600,000 non-smokers.

And by 2030 it could kill eight million people annually – more than the combined deaths from HIV, TB and malaria, Chan said yesterday.

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