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WHO chief takes aim at tobacco industry

Firms are using vast resources to combat anti-smoking efforts, says Margaret Chan

South China Morning Post – 11 Oct. 2011

The world’s health chief yesterday launched a scathing attack on the tobacco industry, accusing it of going against public opinion and using its vast resources to prevent world governments from implementing anti-smoking policies.

“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,” World Health Organisation director general Dr Margaret Chan Fung Fu-chun said in her address to the opening of a regional conference in Manila.

Chan, Hong Kong’s former director of health, urged member countries to stand firm against “the big tobacco lobby”.

“Big Tobacco can afford to hire the best lawyers and PR firms that money can buy. Big money can speak louder than any moral, ethical or public health argument,” she said.

Chan’s speech came after a world-first anti-smoking law being introduced by the Australian government was challenged by tobacco company Philip Morris in court.

Australia planned to bring in legislation on “plain packaging”, which would require all cigarette packs to be standardised. Philip Morris says the move violates international trade obligations and has warned it will seek billions of dollars in compensation if the law is enacted.

Chan said such a case showed how powerful tobacco companies were trying to use strong-arm tactics to fight anti-smoking efforts.

She said such action could instil fear in countries planning to bring in tougher measures, and called on governments to stand firm.

The WHO has been campaigning to reduce the smoking population globally to lower the health impact of cigarettes and cigars, which are believed to kill six million people a year, including 600,000 non-smokers who die from secondhand smoke. It estimates if no action is taken the death toll could rise to eight million by 2030.

Australia’s secretary of the department of health and ageing, Jane Halton, who attended yesterday’s meeting, said her government would not be intimidated by “disgraceful tactics” and would press ahead with the legislation.

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