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World Leaders Commit to Fighting Tobacco Use as Part of Global Battle Against Non-Communicable Diseases, But Words Must Be Backed Up By Action

Statement of Matthew L. Myers, President, Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids
September 19, 2011

NEW YORK, NY – Meeting at the United Nations, world leaders today have made an unprecedented commitment to addressing the global public health crisis caused by non-communicable diseases (NCDs) and recognized that the battle against NCDs cannot be won without winning the fight against tobacco, the only risk factor shared by all major categories of NCDS — cancer, heart disease, chronic lung disease and diabetes. NCDs are the world’s biggest killers, accounting for nearly two out of every three deaths worldwide.

We are especially encouraged that the final declaration adopted today at the United Nations High-Level Meeting on Non-Communicable Diseases calls on nations to accelerate implementation of tobacco control policies such as those contained in the World Health Organization's Framework Convention on Tobacco Control, the world's only public health treaty. In particular, the declaration recognizes the effectiveness of raising taxes on tobacco products, stating that 'price and tax measures are an effective and important means of reducing tobacco consumption.'

The urgent challenge now is for nations to back up these commitments with concrete and aggressive actions. Only by putting in place the policies that we know work can nations reduce tobacco use, prevent the terrible diseases they cause and save millions of lives. In addition to higher taxes on tobacco products, the scientifically proven measures called for by the tobacco treaty include strong warning labels on tobacco products, smoke-free laws that protect against secondhand smoke and bans on tobacco advertising, promotion and sponsorship. To date, 174 countries have joined the treaty and committed to implementing these measures, including most of the countries participating in this week's UN meeting.

Today's declaration recognizes that NCDs create an unsustainable burden on the economy of every country, increase poverty and are a barrier to development, facts echoed by new reports from the World Economic Forum and World Health Organization. The report from the World Economic Forum and Harvard School of Public Health shows that without aggressive efforts to reduce NCDs, the global economic impact from the four leading non-communicable diseases could total over $30 trillion over the next 20 years.

Yet, the WHO report tells us that interventions for addressing high risk factors for NCDs would be eminently affordable – ranging from under one dollar to three dollars per person depending on the country. Policies to reduce tobacco use cost even less to implement and can even raise revenue in the case of tobacco taxes. Earlier this year, the World Health Organization's first Global Status Report on NCDs recommended tobacco control measures among ten 'best buys' for combating NCDs – cost-effective actions that governments should undertake immediately. An April 2011 report in The Lancet medical journal identified tobacco control as 'the most urgent and immediate priority' for combating NCDs and found that implementing the policies called for by the tobacco treaty would cost less than 20 cents per person per year in countries such as India and China.

The UN meeting is highlighting the urgent need for world leaders to step up the fight against tobacco use, which kills nearly six million people worldwide each year. It is not possible to effectively reduce the major types of NCD such as 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. Eighty percent of deaths from NCDs occur in low and middle-income countries.

Deliberations leading up to this week's meeting also led the world's leaders to another vital conclusion: Tobacco companies are not like other businesses. The 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.

Implementing proven tobacco control measures is critical to winning the global fight against NCDs and to reducing the one billion deaths tobacco use will otherwise cause this century. 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 to implement tobacco control policies like those contained in the Framework Convention on Tobacco Control and endorsed once again today by the world's nations.