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Reducing Tobacco Use Must be a Top Priority for World Leaders at United Nations Meeting on Non-Communicable Diseases

Statement of Matthew L. Myers, President, Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids
September 13, 2011

WASHINGTON, DC — Non-communicable diseases (NCDs) — especially cancer, heart disease, chronic lung disease and diabetes — have overtaken infectious diseases as the world's leading killers and now cause nearly two out of every three deaths worldwide. The global burden of NCDs will take center stage September 19-20, 2011, in New York City when the United Nations (UN) holds a High-Level Meeting on Non-Communicable Diseases.

The UN meeting highlights the urgent need for world leaders to step up the fight against tobacco use, which kills nearly six million people worldwide each year and is the only risk factor for all major types of NCDs. It is not possible to stop the global epidemic from cancer, heart disease, diabetes and lung disease unless nations tackle the problem of tobacco. The World Health Organization (WHO) has stated that 80 percent of heart disease, stroke and type 2 diabetes and over one-third of cancers can be prevented by eliminating the risk from tobacco use, the abuse of alcohol, unhealthy diet and physical inactivity. As public health leaders around the world have concluded, prevention – including tobacco prevention — must be the cornerstone of efforts to reduce non-communicable diseases.

It is appropriate and encouraging that the draft Political Declaration, to be considered by governments at next week's meeting, recognizes that reducing tobacco use must be a global priority and calls on nations to accelerate implementation of the WHO Framework Convention on Tobacco Control, the world's only public health treaty. Measures called for by the treaty include tobacco tax increases, strong warning labels on tobacco products, smoke-free laws that protect against secondhand smoke and bans on tobacco advertising, promotion and sponsorship. In particular, the draft declaration recognizes that 'price and tax measures are an effective and important means of reducing tobacco consumption.' Earlier this year, the WHO's first Global Status Report on NCDs recommended these tobacco control measures among ten 'best buys' for combating NCDs — cost-effective actions that governments should undertake immediately.

Deliberations leading up to the UN meeting led the world's leaders to another vital conclusion: Tobacco companies are not like other businesses. The draft declaration states that nations 'recognize the fundamental conflict of interest between the tobacco industry and public health.' This is an unequivocal statement that governments must reject tobacco industry efforts to defeat and weaken tobacco control policies.

It is also critical that world leaders recognize that non-communicable diseases are a cause of increased global poverty, a barrier to global development and, contrary to representations by the tobacco industry, a drain on the economy of countries. In fact, 80 percent of deaths from NCDs occur in low and middle-income countries.

An April 2011 report in The Lancet medical journal identified tobacco control as 'the most urgent and immediate priority' for combating NCDs. Implementation of policies mandated by the tobacco control treaty would prevent 5.5 million deaths over 10 years in 23 low- and middle-income countries with a high burden of NCDs — and cost less than 20 cents per person per year in countries such as China and India, according to The Lancet.

Because the toll of tobacco is so high and the cost of addressing the tobacco epidemic is so low, nations have no excuse for not acting. Implementing these tobacco control measures is critical to winning the global fight against non-communicable diseases and to reducing the one billion deaths tobacco use will otherwise cause this century.