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Eastern Europe: 'No Tobacco Day' To Curb High Profile of Tobacco

Tomorrow is World No Tobacco Day. The event comes on the heels of the World Health Organization's (WHO) approval of the Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (FCTC). The FCTC is a landmark international agreement calling for a halt to tobacco advertising, promotion, and sponsorship. RFE/RL spoke to Derek Yach, the head of the WHO's non-communicable diseases and mental health division, who is leading the agency's anti-tobacco program. Yach discussed the importance of the FCTC and No Tobacco Day for countries in Central and Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union.

Question: Dr. Yach, how much of a threat does smoking pose in the world? In particular, how serious is the situation in Eastern Europe?

Dr. Yach: At the moment we have almost 5 million deaths from tobacco in the world [each year], a figure that we think will rise to about 10 million [annually] by the late 2020s, and most of those will be in developing countries. Already a large number of those deaths are in Eastern and Central Europe -- well over half a million deaths [per year]. So, we need to have an international response to what must be one of the largest public health challenges of our time.

Question: The first international treaty concerning tobacco, the Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (FCTC), was unanimously adopted by the 192 member states of the World Health Organization earlier this month [21 May]. The measure has been hailed as a major breakthrough in the worldwide fight against smoking. What are the main objectives of the FCTC?

Dr. Yach: The Framework Convention really has two major goals. One is to put in place comprehensive national tobacco control policies and strategies, which include a focus on raising taxes on cigarettes, banning advertising, marketing, promotion, sponsorship, providing support for smoke-free public places, helping smokers to quit, and a wide range of other measures including trying to limit or reduce smuggling. The second broad category of activities are aimed at recognizing that no individual country in this globalized world can achieve tobacco control by going it alone. We need to address cross-border advertising, whether it's the Internet, satellite television, foreign magazines, as well as some of the illicit trade that occurs across borders. So the treaty makes provision both to strengthen and to set a baseline for national tobacco control. Altogether, the countries undertake to take measures to both reduce the negative side and also to exchange information that will help them have best practices become the universal norm.

Question: Tobacco companies have said that stricter rules leading to lower global demand for tobacco would deal a blow to developing countries that rely on tobacco production. Philip Morris in 2001 even came up with a controversial study in the Czech Republic, which concluded that the early deaths of smokers can save the government up to $30 million a year. What do you say in response to such arguments?

Dr. Yach: The European Commission, through its Common Agricultural Policy, subsidizes tobacco to the total of 1,000 million euros [$1.2 billion] a year -- a figure that effectively blocks Zimbabwe, Malawi, and other [tobacco-growing developing countries] from getting their tobacco leaves sold in the European region. We know the tobacco companies have tried very hard to argue that the economic issues around farming should be used as a means to block progress on reducing smoking. But the economic arguments are wrong and I think particularly [those people] in the Czech Republic would understand how the tobacco companies have used very spurious arguments on the economic aspects. The Philip Morris study not so long ago, saying that they would encourage smoking since there'd be more deaths, being a very good example.

Question: According to the World Bank, the 29 countries of Eastern Europe and Central Asia account for some 16 percent of the world's total cigarette consumption, even though they make up only 8 percent of the world population. Tobacco companies argue that governments in the region are not interested in fighting smoking, since some of them collect up to 10 percent of total tax revenues from tobacco. What is your response to these arguments?

Dr. Yach: The reality is that excise tax on tobacco is the most powerful means of reducing consumption. For every 10-percent increase in tobacco prices there's a 4-5 percent reduction in consumption. And the good news for the ministries of finance is that, even as smoking rates drop, revenue to governments will continue for many, many decades to come. The reality for much of Eastern and Central Europe is that the tax levels are far too low, not that they are far too high, or that the governments are dependent on them. We haven't anywhere in Eastern and Central Europe reached the kinds of levels [of tobacco excise taxes] that we are seeing in the United Kingdom or Norway or in New York City. We know that around the world, those countries which have enough political courage to continue to raise excise taxes year after year see government revenue increase -- which gives them more money for other social services -- but see the number of smokers drop and decline, which reduces the death rate. Again, the economic argument has been twisted by Philip Morris and a number of tobacco companies to say that the governments are addicted to it. That is a non-argument, because of the net benefits to public health.

Question: Many people were concerned with the rapid expansion of international tobacco companies into the ex-communist bloc. After almost 15 years, has the situation improved in any way?

Dr. Yach: I think finally this message is getting through, and we are seeing the growth of nongovernmental organizations and consumer groups across the region, whether it's in Ukraine, in Russia, in Poland, Slovenia. From virtually nothing going on a few years ago, we now have very strong NGOs in some places; in others we have fledgling groups. Some have been successful in bringing legislation to parliament. For example in Poland, for the last few years we've seen a decline in tobacco consumption brought about through raising taxes, banning advertising, [promoting] smoke-free public places.

Question: What about Central Asia?

Dr. Yach: We think the same can happen far more to the East. And as we start heading into the Central Asian republics as well, we had none of those countries taking part in the Framework Convention negotiations when they started. But by the end of period, we had a very strong commitment by the Central Asian republics to start moving together on some of the basic legislation. I think there is a very serious awakening, they are looking at the data, they realize this is a preventable cause of death, that's costing the government a lot of money, and that they realize that the promises of tobacco companies about bringing freedom are a simple illusion. All they bring is death.

Question: This year's World No Tobacco Day comes after the adoption of the Framework Convention. What can you tell us about it?

Dr. Yach: First of all, we hope that people will see this as a chance to celebrate the adoption of the Convention. But the specific content is around movies and the fashion industry. For a very long time we've been concerned with the fashion industry, and many of the large fashion companies, often linked to tobacco companies, like Richemont, and many of their product lines -- Dunhill, Cartier, and so on, have not only been able to extend their fashion lines [by producing cigarettes of the same name] but have done so by having models smoke, have encouraged young people -- and young women particularly -- to smoke, have glamorized the sexiness, the beauty and the desirability of tobacco in the fashion industry as well as in the film industry. We've known for many years that tobacco companies have paid a lot of money to have actors smoke a cigarette for few minutes [in a movie], to get the brand, to get the cigarette known to the public.

Question: How popular is your initiative among insiders in the fashion and movie industries?

Dr. Yach: This year we have a unique lineup of supporters. A number of people in Hollywood, a number of people in [the world's largest film studios in] Bollywood, in India, and the fashion industry based in Italy, joining hands to say that the time has come to have tobacco-free films, and tobacco-free fashion. And we believe that we'll be as successful as we were last year in starting to get tobacco out of all sports.