Ehsan Latif: A decade of leadership in global tobacco control
‘The strategy for tobacco control is on the cusp of major change,’ says Dr Ehsan Latif, Director of The Union’s Department of Tobacco Control. ‘We need to continue with established work to limit demand for tobacco, but also develop new approaches to reduce the supply. And crucially, we must focus on countering the economic and legal tactics now being used by the tobacco industry to obstruct and delay life-saving public health policies.’
This clear global perspective has characterised Latif’s leadership of The Union’s tobacco control work over the last 10 years. His insights on the changing nature of tobacco use, tobacco control policy and tobacco industry challenges provide the vital context informing our approach in this field. Since 2007 this has primarily involved leading the Bloomberg Initiative to Reduce Tobacco Use [BI] grants and capacity building programme – with 302 grants across 43 countries made to date, which have provided more than US$ 70 million to support measures proven to reduce tobacco use.
Grants and technical support provided by The Union have now trained more than 3,000; helped introduce national smokefree laws in 28 countries, protecting 2.85 billion people; graphic health warnings on tobacco packaging in 18 countries, impacting 2.59 billion people; and assisted 10 countries to establish sustainable tobacco control funding, covering 2.05 billion people.
‘I began my career as a paediatrician which led to specialist work in asthma and pneumonia,’ says Latif. ‘In those days, the harms of second-hand smoke were not on the radar in Pakistan. So if their parents smoked, I would see the same children becoming ill time and again struggling to maintain a normal life through no fault of their own. Thanks to the World Health Organization’s Framework Convention on Tobacco Control [WHO FCTC] and funding provided by the BI grants programme this scenario now looks very different.’
Increasingly interested in second-hand smoke, Latif wrote several papers and articles on the subject. He soon saw that preventing tobacco-related illness went far beyond the remit of medical practitioners. At that time the WHO FCTC negotiations were beginning, so Latif became involved. He joined the board of the WHO FCTC’s civil society partners, the Framework Convention Alliance, and set up a coalition of diverse civil society organisations in Pakistan [CTC-Pak] to progress tobacco control in his home country.
Latif built on his medical background and practical experience in the policy-making process with a Masters in Public Health at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine. He also wrote a paper for the Commonwealth Policy Studies Unit at University College London on the future of tobacco control.
‘It became increasingly clear that tobacco use was a global epidemic and that tobacco control would have to create global solutions. But despite the fact that tobacco was claiming above six million lives each year, there was no funding. Thankfully, Bloomberg Philanthropies took up the challenge.’
Latif was then hired by The Union to set up tobacco control operations in the Eastern Mediterranean. He became Director of the Department at its Edinburgh headquarters in 2010.
‘As an organisation we have the ideal profile for managing programmes such as the BI grants. We have a superb track record, of almost 100 years, working with governments to establish systems to tackle tuberculosis.
“It is universally acknowledged that lobbying helps bring about change. But, tobacco control at The Union has taken a different approach, and many important doors have opened as a result. We are a trusted partner that works quietly with governments to help make significant changes inside the system. The Department has a global team renowned for its technical expertise and ability to partner seamlessly with governments and civil society. We always ensure that governments take full credit for their achievements introducing and enforcing excellent policies. It’s not about getting the glory; it’s about getting the work done.’
‘Much has been achieved in terms of changing the social norms of tobacco use, increasing risk-awareness and limiting the tobacco industry’s scope for marketing its products. As a result of this success, the industry is now aggressively countering further progress – by suing and intimidating the governments that are proactively working for public health. Australia, Uruguay, Pakistan and India are just a handful of nations embroiled in these legal battles’.
In recent years Latif has commissioned key research and the development of technical tools to address this change in dynamic, including a step-by-step guide for governments working to prevent industry interference (Article 5.3 Toolkit) and an in-depth discussion paper on international trade agreements and their impact on health treaties.
‘The stakes could not be higher. The tobacco industry is attempting to undermine the sovereign right of states to protect and promote the health of their citizens against the only legal product that kills people when used as directed. They have enormous wealth at their disposal, enabling them to use the complex, costly and time-consuming legal instruments that are increasingly available as our markets and economies become more and more globalised. All of us who are working in tobacco control consequently need to develop new expertise, new partnerships and new approaches to defeat them. The Union is well-placed to take this challenge on.’