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Gustavo Sóñora: Tobacco control is not just public health, it’s about human rights

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Twelve years ago Gustavo Sóñora was hired as legal counsel for Miguel Asqueta, the congressman charged with authoring Uruguay’s first national tobacco control law. The World Health Organization’s Framework Convention on Tobacco Control [WHO FCTC] negotiations had just been completed and Uruguay became one of the first countries to ratify the treaty.

In so doing, the government committed to meeting the obligations specified in the WHO FCTC’s 38 Articles. And a legal framework was needed to support these new public health policies. Sóñora was at the forefront of this ground-breaking work.

‘It was an exciting time. Oncologist Tabaré Vázquez was president, and he led us into the vanguard for tobacco control. He had confronted the devastation caused by tobacco use head-on throughout his career. With the launch of the WHO FCTC he seized the opportunity to make a comprehensive pre-emptive strike against the horrors of smoking – through strong public health policy.’

‘Because of his drive we could move swiftly on this challenging new work. We were the first country in Latin America to introduce a comprehensive tobacco control law, and it became a model for the region.’

Sóñora was well-placed to take up this challenge. Trained as a lawyer, he specialised in public policy and gender issues. He then worked for a non-governmental organisation that focused on tobacco epidemic research.

The first national law included strong regulation of tobacco advertising, promotion and sponsorship as well as graphic health warnings covering 50 percent of the surface area of tobacco packaging. Since this prompt beginning, Uruguay’s policymakers have progressively invested in and built upon its tobacco control programme. It now leads the field internationally, with some of the strongest and best implemented legislation in the world. Smoking rates among adults fell from 32 percent in 2006 to 23 percent in 2011. And since the 100 percent smoke-free law came into force, hospitalisations for heart attacks have decreased 22 percent.

‘Each new policy had to be enshrined in law. So that’s where I came in. As a lawyer it was a huge privilege to be charged with creating a legal framework to prevent disease, poverty and premature death. Tobacco control is not just about public health, it’s about human rights. When people use tobacco their quality of life is curtailed. Finances, families and communities ultimately fail where the tobacco epidemic remains unchecked.’

When The Union opened an office in Mexico in 2008 as the hub for its tobacco control work in Latin America, its new director Mirta Molinari hired Sóñora as technical legal advisor. He provides legal advice and assistance to governments, civil society and legal professionals across the region as part of the Bloomberg Initiative to Reduce Tobacco Use.

‘Since 2008 a large part of my work has been building capacity for tobacco control amongst lawyers across the continent through intensive, multi-day workshops. It’s very important; these are the people who are making public policy. The weaker the law, the further you are from effectively protecting people from tobacco. We have trained around 20 lawyers each year since 2008. This has evolved to become a professional network, with information regularly exchanged across the region. For example, Peru is currently developing a bill to ban tobacco advertising, promotion and sponsorship. I am assisting – both advising on best practice and precedents from across the region, as well as providing the scientific evidence to support introduction of such a law. If the evidence we provide is good, the law will be better.’

Sóñora has also built capacity for tobacco control amongst other key groups of actors in tobacco control – policymakers, journalists, civil society groups and enforcement agencies.

‘Today the health harms of tobacco use are almost universally undisputed. Our challenge now is to achieve the same level of understanding about the impact of tobacco in relation to economies – at family, community and national levels. For too long international trade and finance have been used by the tobacco industry as powerful tools to lobby and intimidate policymakers. The industry has also used these issues to misinform and confound the public.’

Uruguay’s recent legal win against Phillip Morris International set an international precedent that creates an important foundation for this new work. When, after six years the government of Uruguay won the case this January, the court’s decision upheld the right of a sovereign state to prioritise the health of its people above the financial interests of a multinational tobacco company.

‘This was an important legal outcome, not just for Uruguay, or Latin America, but for public health in nations around the world. If the tobacco industry had won, it would have been a deterrent for other countries working to protect the health of their citizens. This ruling should make it quicker and easier for countries to introduce new and effective tobacco control policies. We’ve reached an important juncture.’