Higher Tobacco Taxes Cure for Killer Addiction

  • by Portia Crowe (united nations)
  • Wednesday, June 01, 2011
  • Inter Press Service

Tobacco control cannot be left to national endeavors, said Haik Nikogosian, head of the Framework Convention on Tobacco Control.

Rather, what is needed is 'global cooperation' — the best example of which is the World Health Organization (WHO) Framework Convention on Tobacco Control, or FCTC, which came into force in 2005.

Although the FCTC is the first United Nations treaty on public health, it is already one of the most widely embraced international treaties in existence, having been ratified by more than 170 countries to date.

The treaty calls on governments to ban tobacco advertising and promotion, create smoke-free public spaces, put prominent health warnings on tobacco packaging, combat illicit trade in tobacco products, and adopt tax and price measures to reduce tobacco consumption.

'The single most important intervention is tobacco taxes,' said Prabhat Jha, the University of Toronto's chair in disease control. He said a worldwide doubling of tobacco prices would reduce global consumption by a third.

Jha highlighted the success stories of Canada and, especially, France, where a combination of price hikes and smoking bans halved smoking within 15 years and saw a dramatic drop in lung cancer rates.

'A modest action could have substantial health gains,' he said.

Rather than hurt the poor, Jha believes that tobacco taxation will benefit them in the long run, as they are more price-responsive and will likely decrease their tobacco consumption if taxed.

'This is actually a win-win for the poor,' he said.

Joseph Deiss, president of the U.N. General Assembly, noted that smoking usually kills people in their economically productive years, thus adding to poverty as families lose their breadwinners.

And, he added, 'It is the poor who now smoke the most.'

Increased tax revenue would have a particularly significant impact in the developing world, where tobacco consumption has been steadily rising.

By 2030, 70-80 percent of deaths from tobacco will occur in low- and middle-income countries, according to Patricia Lambert of the Framework Convention Alliance. 'Africa fits squarely into that,' she added.

But according to Lambert, the FCTC has a special connection with Africa. Only five of the 47 countries in the WHO African region have not signed the treaty.

Representatives from across Africa meet at inter-sessional tobacco conferences, allowing the entire continent to negotiate with a single voice on the international stage.

'Often, Africa is seen as somewhere in rear of these kinds of movements,' Lambert said. 'But when it comes to tobacco control, that is not true.'

Some countries, however, are encountering legal battles in their efforts to crack down on tobacco.

'The tobacco industry is not taking this lying down,' Lambert said, pointing to a lawsuit between British-American Tobacco and the South African government.

This year, tobacco giant Philip Morris sued the government of Uruguay for having 'excessive' regulations (in Uruguay, health warnings must cover 80 percent of cigarette packages).

But many third world governments must face an additional challenge in their control efforts: tobacco production is an extremely important economic industry in some developing countries, which are heavily dependent on it for foreign revenue.

By boosting control measures and reducing tobacco consumption, governments are putting their own citizens out of work.

'[Farmers] are growing tobacco out of necessity. They want to pay for school fees, they want to pay for medications against malaria and other diseases,' Justin Seruhere, a minister with the Tanzanian Mission, told IPS.

The panel acknowledged that the best solution for these farmers is to transition to cultivating less harmful products.

Lambert said that it would be decades before a crop shift would affect farmers, and in that time, ministries of agriculture could help them make the switch.

She added that tobacco production often results in a poverty trap for individual farmers, who borrow loans and fall deeper and deeper into debt.

Jha pointed to the United States example, where, he said, 'It's not the case that tobacco farmers are going out of business. It's that their sons and daughters aren't staying in the tobacco industry.'

'The argument is,' he told IPS, to 'focus on [cutting] demand, and eventually supply will adjust to it.'

But Seruhere is not satisfied. 'Some of these countries are not so rich as to be able to change investment from tobacco growth to production of other crops,' he said.

He called for the support of the international community to assist countries in shifting from harmful to 'useful' production.

'It's possible. It's doable. We're going to need commitment, but it's doable,' he told IPS.

© Inter Press Service (2011) — All Rights ReservedOriginal source: Inter Press Service

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