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The Director's Corner

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Tobacco: Now is the time to get to the heart of the matter

A message from José Luis Castro, Executive Director, The Union, on World No Tobacco Day 2018


It is well known that tobacco use is a leading cause of many types of cancer. But smoking’s impact on heart health is less widely understood. This World No Tobacco Day we join with partners and advocates across the globe to raise awareness about the effects of smoking – and second-hand smoke – on the heart.

After high blood pressure, tobacco use is the leading risk factor for cardiovascular diseases (CVD) including coronary heart disease, stroke and peripheral vascular disease. CVDs kill more people than any other cause of death worldwide, and 12 percent of these deaths are attributable to tobacco use and exposure to second-hand smoke.

Tobacco breaks hearts. And in greater numbers than we have ever known. Seven million people each year are killed by tobacco use. By 2030, unless there is a radical turnaround, it will be one billion. Just numbers, but each one – a father, a mother, a brother, a sister, a friend. One billion, and then some.

In the midst of this devastation, let us remember this most poignant fact -- that every single one of these deaths is preventable.

Tobacco-related illness is an industrial epidemic on a unique scale, driven by a powerful set of transnational corporations that sell highly addictive and deadly products. As the Oxford Medical Companion so succinctly says: ‘Tobacco is the only legally available consumer product which kills people when it is used entirely as intended.’ In other words, the tobacco industry – the BAT’s, the PMI’s the JTI’s, their executives and lawyers – are a unique form of disease vector, spreading the devastating consequences of tobacco use around the globe. And they make a colossal amount of money in the process.

Every government around the world has the tools at hand to effectively halt this epidemic -- the WHO Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (WHO FCTC) -- but many are not yet using these tools to their best effect.

Tobacco tax is the most effective least-used tool in public health. It is proven to reduce tobacco use at population level over the long-term. Increasing tobacco taxes also increases government revenues that can be strategically used for universal health care or public health programmes. Yet the number of countries with tobacco tax policies at the WHO recommended levels have actually fallen in recent years.

Some of the reasons for this are technical, some are very complex. Many are linked to pervasive and insidious messaging from the tobacco industry. You can read more about all this here. But on World No Tobacco Day, as public health advocates, our focus must be this: that political leadership at the highest levels is urgently needed to draw governments together, to draw heads of state together, to stand united under this common goal -- to end the scourge of tobacco-related disease, premature death and the poverty it brings. If all countries implemented an effective tobacco tax strategy in line with WHO FCTC recommendations, this goal would be so much nearer achieved.

This year the United Nations is convening a meeting of world leaders to agree on a way forward for ending the tobacco epidemic, as the leading risk factor of non-communicable diseases, (NCDs) including CVDs and cancers. The United Nations High-Level Meeting on NCDs will take place in New York on 27 September. In order to be successful, heads of state, members of parliament, policymakers and influencers from around the world must come together and agree priorities and strategies for collaboration. To succeed in halting the escalating rates of NCDs worldwide, curbing tobacco use and the grip of the tobacco industry must be central to this strategy. Increasing tobacco taxes and preventing tobacco industry interference in policymaking are therefore global imperatives in the battle against NCDs.

Today, on World No Tobacco Day, I urge you to join us, and call on your political representatives to take action – to urge them to join the UN HLM on NCDS. And to put your health, and the health of your loved ones, above the interests of the tobacco industry.

Stand with us to stop tobacco breaking hearts.

Find out how you can get involved in the UNHLM on NCDs here, at the NCD Alliance ENOUGH campaign website.