20th World No Tobacco Day Highlights Importance of Health Warnings

May. 22 2009

The World Health Organization’s World No Tobacco Day, observed every May 31, focuses global attention on the devastating toll of the international tobacco epidemic and the urgent need for nations to implement proven measures to reduce tobacco use and save lives. This year’s theme is “Tobacco Health Warnings.”

Large, pictorial warnings are effective in communicating the health risks associated with tobacco use. Pictorial warnings also detract from the overall attractiveness of tobacco packaging, which is important for a product whose primary new users are young and image- and brand-conscious.

The WHO’s Framework Convention on Tobacco Control, the first global public health treaty, obligates its more than 160 member countries to require "health warnings describing the harmful effects of tobacco use" on tobacco packaging.

Studies have found that warning labels are most effective at communicating the health risks of tobacco use when they contain both pictures and words, and are large and in color. Warning labels also must be rotated periodically to avoid over exposure.

Governments that are Parties to the FCTC must begin to use this inexpensive method of informing consumers about the risks of smoking. Yet the WHO found that of 176 member states, 44 percent (77 countries) did not require any warnings on cigarette packs, and 40 percent (71 countries) require warnings covering less than 30 percent of the principal display area.

The treaty also calls on nations to implement additional scientifically proven measures to reduce tobacco use, including:

  • Ban all tobacco advertising, promotion and sponsorships.
  • Raise the price of tobacco products by significantly increasing tobacco taxes.
  • Protect everyone from secondhand smoke with laws that require smoke-free workplaces and public places.
  • Fund and implement effective tobacco prevention and cessation programs to prevent children from starting to smoke and help smokers quit.

Tobacco use continues to be the most preventable cause of death in the word. In fact, according to the WHO, tobacco use will kill one billion people worldwide this century unless nations act now to save lives.