The Director’s Corner

The Director’s Corner

Tobacco: a threat to development

A message from José Luis Castro on World No Tobacco Day

The World Health Organization’s 2017 report on the tobacco epidemic in China reveals some truly startling statistics – 200 million lives will be lost to tobacco in China this century. Economic costs have spiralled by 1000 percent in under 15 years.  In 2014 alone the bill was around 350 billion Yuan (US $57 billion).

The scale of this epidemic is catastrophic – and not just in China, but globally. The annual cost of tobacco use to the global economy now exceeds US$ 1 trillion. The blight of tobacco use is clearly one that affects us all – not only does it wreck the health of individuals; it devastates families, communities and economies. It is a threat to development for communities in low, middle and high-income countries across the world.

This epidemic is entirely preventable. So where does responsibility lie for halting it?

Until now it has remained firmly within the remit of health ministries, public health professionals and civil society organisations. But the evidence is stacking up – this is not simply a health issue. It is an economic issue, a human rights issue, an environmental issue, a development issue.

The battle to reduce tobacco use needs new champions. We need courageous, innovative and brilliant people from a raft of professions and backgrounds to take up this cause.

Today in Paris, AXA, one of the world’s largest insurance firms is doing just this – uniting leaders in finance to discuss how they can help prevent the steady progress of this global health disaster. AXA divested its US$2 billion tobacco industry shares last year, stating that such investments were irreconcilable with some of its core business – health and life insurance. This bold move and plain speaking has inspired several other firms to follow suit. AXA’s leadership has started something. 

On this World No Tobacco Day we urge governments to take this same strong view, and then act accordingly: protecting and promoting the health of citizens is irreconcilable with protecting and promoting the interests of the tobacco industry. As AXA stated, the move to divest from tobacco has a short-term cost, but the long-term business case is positive, given the tragic human and economic costs of tobacco use. 

A culture shift is urgently required of governments to advance tobacco control now – ministries of finance, agriculture, trade and health must mobilise and work together in unity toward this common goal.

Indeed, the Sustainable Development Goals include the World Health Organization’s Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (WHO FCTC) as a vital tool for attaining its ambitious 2030 targets to end poverty, protect the planet and ensure prosperity for all. Many of the WHO FCTC’s 180 Parties have made good progress introducing measures such as smoke-free public places, graphic health warnings on tobacco packaging and bans on tobacco advertising. Rates of tobacco use have been duly impacted.

However, two core areas of tobacco control remain inadequately implemented, almost across the board – increasing tobacco taxes and holding the tobacco industry to account.

The former is the most powerful measure for reducing tobacco use. The latter is vital for revealing the true and pernicious face of an industry that sells lethal and addictive products – targets children with powerful marketing campaigns; misleads consumers with pseudo-science; obstructs, delays and waters down policies to protect health; perpetuates human rights abuses in its supply chains; and produces the most littered item in the world – toxic and non-biodegradable cigarette butts.

Demand – and systems – for taking punitive action against this industry must be built internationally as a matter of urgency.

Governments must prioritize these measures if rates of tobacco use are to fall significantly over the long term. And both require a proactive, whole-of-government commitment to reducing tobacco use.

As forward-thinking firms like AXA vocally take up their role in advancing global tobacco control, their strong message will reach diverse policymakers and government ministries, as yet unreached by the public health community. We applaud AXA’s action, and urge other firms to shake off historical ties to an industry that has no place in modern societies and economies.