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Free yourself! World No Tobacco Day 2013

by Chris Woodhall | Analysis

31 May 2013

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World No Tobacco Day PosterToday marks the World Health Organisation‘s (WHO) World No Tobacco Day – an annual event that has taken place since 1988.

This year, the theme is about sending a message to governments to ban tobacco advertising, promotion and sponsorship. Tobacco advertising was banned in the UK many years ago but the sad fact is that only 19 countries – representing just six per cent of the world’s population – have comprehensive national bans.

This is despite the fact that the WHO international Framework Convention for Tobacco Control (FCTC) – a treaty that’s been signed by 168 countries worldwide – requires a comprehensive ban of all tobacco advertising, promotion and sponsorship.

Although the theme changes every year, the devastating reason for World No Tobacco Day remains the same:

Tobacco kills nearly six million people each year, of which more than 600,000 are non-smokers dying from breathing second-hand smoke

In this post, we explore recent international developments in the fight against tobacco. And we ask whether the UK is still ‘Setting the Standard’ for the rest of the world to follow, after a decade of significant progress in tobacco control.

International progress

The Tobacco Atlas (a collaboration between the World Lung Foundation and The American Cancer Society) shows the progress countries around the world have made in restricting tobacco marketing.

What’s most striking about this global picture is the apparently random nature of restrictions, which simply don’t fit traditional patterns of global development. The idea that progress in limiting exposure to tobacco marketing should fit traditional views of wealth, education or healthcare provision just don’t stack up – In short, richer countries are not necessarily more restrictive.

Cultural and constitutional variations have had far more of an impact on global patterns of tobacco legislation.

In the United States, for example, advocates of tobacco control are forced to contend with the industry hiding behind the first amendment right to ‘free speech’. In China, the conflict between the Government’s role to protect public health and the state ownership of the China State Tobacco Corporation (which has a monopoly on the world’s largest single market) presents a clear conflict.

And in Europe, slow-paced legislative processes and delicate consensus-building among European Union member states have seen it fall behind the global standard in areas such as point of sale restrictions – which controls the advertising and display of cigarettes in places they are sold – compared with regions such as Africa and South-East Asia.

But there are other areas where the balance shifts – the European region has the largest proportion of countries (nearly eight in10) that have a ban on national TV, radio and print tobacco adverts, as well as controls on some but not all other forms of direct and/or indirect marketing.

Cigarette advert

US magazine advert from 1963

In general, international progress in tobacco control and reducing smoking rates since the first World No Tobacco Day in 1988 has been incremental, although significant landmarks have peppered the last quarter-century. The most notable of these is the Framework Convention for Tobacco Control, an evidence-based treaty that protects public health policies from interference by the tobacco industry.

A landmark in regional legislation is the Tobacco Products Directive, which regulates the manufacture, presentation and sale of tobacco products in the European Union.

And major legal cases have played their part, such as the Master Settlement Agreement, which curtailed the tobacco industry’s marketing mechanisms and resulted in a $206bn settlement for the damage caused by tobacco (the largest financial recovery in history).

But what about the UK? Is it still setting the standard in tobacco control?

Is the UK ‘Setting the Standard’?

The 2002 Tobacco Advertising and Promotion Act (TAPA) was a huge stride forward, as it effectively removed advertising of tobacco products in the UK. Though it is well documented how motor-racing, to give one example, struggled with its tobacco addiction in the years following the act  – the legislation wasn’t watered down to appease the financial interests of the tobacco industry.

TAPA was followed up with ‘smokefree’ legislation, prohibiting smoking in enclosed workplaces, the removal of cigarette vending machines, and – most recently – point of sale restrictions, which came into force in large shops and supermarkets in England from April 2012 and will follow in smaller stores from 2015.

And though progress in the UK as a whole has often been bumpy – as tobacco industry legal challenges have intermittently stalled the ambitions of Scotland, in particular – the four nations of the UK have been at the forefront of a comprehensive tobacco control approach, which has been reflected in declining smoking rates.

Standard packaging – continuing the fight

The omission of standard packs from the Queen’s Speech on May 8th was disappointing, and marked a failure to continue this momentum in UK tobacco control.

Australia became the first country to introduce standard packaging in December 2012, and New Zealand is set to legislate for the measure, subject to the outcome of litigation. The Scottish Government has committed to finding the right approach for introducing standardised packaging, and the Welsh Health Minister joined his Scottish counterpart in writing to Jeremy Hunt asking him to implement standard packaging in England.

There are also calls on the Northern Irish Health Minister to do the same.

And in the latest development, the Republic of Ireland could become the second country to introduce its own legislation for the plain, standardised packaging of tobacco products.

Join our campaignThis is fantastic news and we welcome the strong political leadership from the Irish government. We urge the UK government to respond as soon as possible and show its support for plain standardised packs. Every day more than 500 under 16s start smoking in the UK – every day’s delay will see more lives being affected by this addiction.

The wait for the Westminster Government to respond to the consultation on standard packs is threatening the UK’s comprehensive tobacco control measures.

This World No Tobacco Day, the UK should embrace the World Health Organisation’s call to ban tobacco advertising, promotion and sponsorship by ‘Setting the Standard’ and introducing legislation for standardised packaging for tobacco products.

You can help us continue to push for standard packaging legislation by emailing your MP.

World No Tobacco Day Awards

Finally, every year the WHO recognises individuals or organizations in each of its six global regions for their accomplishments in the area of tobacco control.

One man who has undoubtedly been ‘Setting the Standard’ in UK tobacco control is Stephen Williams MP, who has been honoured with a World No Tobacco Day award to acknowledge his tireless work in advancing, and protecting effective tobacco control.

We’re proud to have been one of organisations to nominate Stephen for the award, and we are delighted his efforts have been recognised in the international arena.

You can follow the World No Tobacco Day feed on Twitter through the hashtag #NoTobacco

Chris Woodhall, Cancer Research UK tobacco control officer