World No Smoking Day: The struggle continues

ON May 31 Jamaica will join several countries in commemorating "World No Tobacco Day". I gather that this year's theme is 'Ban Tobacco Advertising, Promotion and Sponsorship'. The Heart Foundation has also advised that a supporting campaign will advocate for a comprehensive ban of all tobacco advertising, promotion and sponsorship. That is encouraging news. The bad news is that, despite the best effort of the Heart Foundation and others to date, smoking continues to be the leading cause of preventable diseases in this country and elsewhere. It is blamed for thousands of premature deaths each year, and it adds millions of dollars to our annual budget. Why do we, as a country, prolong the agony of permitting a free ride for smokers when doing so continues to put us all at risk?

I have nothing personal against smokers. Several of my friends smoke. Happily, an increasing number have abandoned this practice voluntarily, and some not so voluntarily, while a few persist even with prodding from me about the risk to their health, especially given that the onset of aging increases the risk. It may be true that the number of smokers is on the decline globally, especially in countries that have become hostile to smoking by implementing anti-smoking legislation and supportive public education campaigns. But the progress in countries like ours where smoking in public places is still permitted, and there remains easy access by children to cigarettes, has not kept pace with the damaging effects of the behaviour.




Since the Framework Convention for Tobacco Control (FCTC) became a reality in 2003, Jamaica and other Caribbean countries have flirted with the provision that calls for an outright ban of smoking in public places. However, while every so often we are told about plans, I am yet to hear a deadline for so doing.

It is also astonishing to me that, although the evidence against smoking escalates, the forces in opposition continue to thwart the best efforts of advocates. Evidently, there remains undercurrent support for the industry which conflicts with the health rights of the majority. This is incredible because a mountain of evidence shows that all non-smokers -- the overwhelming majority of us citizens -- are at risk of the most ravaging forms of chronic non-communicable diseases including all forms of cancer, heart disease, hypertension, and stroke, if and when we continue to permit smokers to work, play and virtually exist in the same physical environment as we do. Hence, the call for outlawing smoking in public spaces should be a no-brainer. It should matter not how much money the tobacco industry ploughs into advertisements, sponsorships and promotions; nor how much taxes are extracted. The health costs far outweigh any inherent benefits and advantages. Cigarette smoking is bad for everybody in health terms, and in both the short and long term is bad for our economy.

There is also another much-overlooked consequence of smoking. While most people should know by now that it is dangerous for our health, many fail to grasp that inhaling someone else's smoke is also harmful, perhaps just as bad. This condition is labelled as second or third-hand smoking, in which tobacco residue clings to surfaces even after smoking ends. "When a cigarette burns, nicotine is released, in the form of a vapour, that collects and condenses on indoor surfaces such as walls, carpeting, drapes and furniture, where it can linger for months," reported one study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. This implies that non-smokers are not protected even when 'smoking areas' are provided in public places like restaurants and hotels.

Our policymakers continue to be tentative in their response to the requirements of the FCTC that they signed on to several years ago, as well as further regional commitments made against smoking, because the forces that support smoking are still powerful and intransigent. But this may also be because we are strong advocates of people's rights to determining the lifestyle they choose for themselves, even when this conflicts with the rights of others. Besides, it would not surprise me one bit that some of our legislators and other decision-makers are smokers, and so are not particularly enthusiastic about implementing the treaty fully.

I have no doubt that enormous strides have been made globally and locally to curb smoking behaviour. However plenty of evidence exists to show that we are a long way from where we need to be if we are serious about improving our national health status and reducing the burden of care for those afflicted with the diseases, which in many cases are directly related to smoking. Recently I have seen some spurious arguments advanced in the media in defence of smoking and the tobacco industry. One of the most persistent being that there is unequal treatment against alcohol consumption. Even if we forget the message that we were taught as children, that: "two wrongs can never make a right," I do believe that the comparison is misguided. While both behaviours are damaging, especially to children and adolescents, the verdict against smoking is overwhelming. I have yet to see any compelling evidence against drinking wine and some other forms of alcohol in moderation. Besides, scientific evidence indicates that a glass of red wine provides some key health benefits. Smoking, on the other hand, is 100 per cent deadly, even when done sparingly.

It seems like not so many years ago that smoking was widely regarded as a 'cool' thing to do, which was an ever-present advertising message and all pervasive on the cinema screens. That was before the coalition intensified their lobby leading into the FCTC. This was the first international treaty negotiated under the auspices of the WHO. It was adopted by the World Health Assembly on 21 May 2003 and entered into force on 27 February 2005. It has since become one of the most rapidly and widely embraced treaties in United Nations history. The theme, which will be promoted in commemorating this year's anniversary is significant for many reasons, mainly that it advances the best interest of our children. A variety of studies have explored the impact of advertising on children and adolescents. Most have shown advertising to be extremely effective in increasing their awareness of and emotional responses to products and their desire to own and use the products advertised. While in Jamaica there is a paucity of direct mass media advertisements of cigarettes, marketing agents have become more adept at product placement methods. This increases the need for more vigilance by advocates against smoking.

As we approach the close of the first decade of the FCTC, let us resolve to intensify our lobby for more action, including banishing smoking from our country and world.

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