WHO Report: Governments Could Do More to Protect Citizens from Secondhand Smoke

Statement of Matthew L. Myers President, Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids

Dec. 9 2009

Washington, D.C. — A new report released today by the World Health Organization (WHO) finds that, even as the global toll of tobacco grows, most governments are falling short in implementing the policies required by the international tobacco control treaty, the Framework Convention on Tobacco Control.

In particular, the report finds that governments are not moving quickly enough to enact comprehensive smoke-free laws that provide protection from deadly secondhand smoke, with more than 94 percent of the world’s population still unprotected.

The WHO Report on the Global Tobacco Epidemic, 2009 makes clear both the devastating scope of the tobacco epidemic and the fact that it is entirely preventable if nations urgently implement the proven solutions called for by the tobacco treaty. It is a wake-up call for nations to take immediate action that can save hundreds of millions of lives.

There is no time to waste because the tobacco industry is aggressively targeting the developing world with its deadly and addictive products.

The WHO states that tobacco use already kills 5.4 million people a year and the epidemic is worsening, especially in the developing world where more than 80 percent of tobacco-caused deaths will occur in the coming decades. Unless urgent action is taken, one billion people will die worldwide from tobacco use this century. Tobacco use is so devastating to the human body that it is a risk factor for six of the eight leading causes of death in the world.

The report focuses on smoke-free environments and finds that while progress has been made in protecting citizens from the harmful effects of secondhand smoke, most nations have yet to adopt and enforce comprehensive smoke-free laws.

Seven far-sighted countries did enact such laws in 2008. Colombia, Djibouti, Guatemala, Mauritius, Panama, Turkey and Zambia are to be congratulated for protecting the health of their citizens and setting an example for the rest of the world.

Even though 154 million people are now covered by smoke-free laws, more than 94 percent of the world’s population is not protected from harmful secondhand smoke. Sixty-five countries report no implementation of any smoke-free policies on a national level.

New data in the report shows 600,000 people die each year as a result of exposure to secondhand smoke. There is overwhelming consensus among medical and scientific authorities worldwide that secondhand smoke is a major public health threat and that the only effective way to protect the public from secondhand smoke is to enact comprehensive smoke-free air laws that cover all indoor workplaces and public places.

Scientific evidence has unequivocally established that exposure to secondhand smoke causes death, disease and disability.

The report also found that nations are not meeting their treaty obligations to implement other proven measures to reduce tobacco use, such as increasing tobacco taxes, requiring large, graphic health warnings on tobacco packs and banning all tobacco advertising, promotion and sponsorship.

There has been little movement on banning all tobacco advertising, sponsorship and promotion, with only Panama passing a new advertising ban in 2008. Progress on increasing tobacco taxes has also come to a halt – with only a few countries increasing taxes while other countries have fallen behind. Nearly 94 percent of the world’s population lives in a country where taxes represent less than 75 percent of the cigarette pack price.

In 2008, five countries joined the group of nations that now fully meet the treaty’s obligation for large, graphic health warnings. Djibouti, Egypt, Iran, Malaysia and Mauritius are to be congratulated for warning their citizens about the dangers of smoking. Yet, despite this progress, only 8 percent of the world’s population lives in a country that mandates warnings on cigarette packs.

The time for nations to act is now. This global health epidemic is not inevitable, and we know how to stop it. Based on science and experience, the WHO has identified six cost-effective solutions that have been proven to reduce tobacco use and that every nation must act urgently to implement. Called the MPOWER package by the WHO, these solutions require nations to:

  • Monitor tobacco use and assess the impact of tobacco prevention and cessation efforts;
  • Protect everyone from secondhand smoke with laws that require smoke-free workplaces and public places;
  • Offer help to every tobacco user to quit;
  • Warn and effectively educate every person about the dangers of tobacco use with strong, pictorial health warnings and hard-hitting, sustained media campaigns to educate the public;
  • Enact and enforce comprehensive bans on tobacco advertising, promotion and sponsorships and on the use of misleading terms such as “light” and “low-tar;” and
  • Raise the price of tobacco products by increasing tobacco taxes.

There are 168 nations that have committed to implementing these measures by ratifying the FCTC. But ratification is not enough. To reduce tobacco use and save lives, nations must enact and enforce strong and effective tobacco control measures. The scientific evidence is beyond dispute that these solutions work, and that they are achievable and affordable.