(By Dr Poonam Khetrapal Singh, WHO Regional Director for South-East Asia)
More people than ever before are covered by life-saving tobacco control policies, including in the South-East Asia Region. That’s one of the findings of a new WHO report on the global tobacco epidemic, which documents how 63% of the world’s population is now covered by at least one comprehensive tobacco control measure mandated by the WHO Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (FCTC), from graphic warnings on tobacco packages to bans on tobacco advertising. Tobacco currently kills more than 7 million people annually.
Significantly, the report highlights progress within the South-East Asia Region, where tobacco kills around 1.3 million people every year, noting that in 2015 Nepal introduced the world’s largest graphic health warnings on tobacco packages (they cover 90% of a tobacco package’s surface area) and that in 2016 India launched a nationwide tobacco cessation programme and toll-free quit-line, while also increasing graphic health warnings to cover 85% of tobacco packages. These achievements build on Region-wide progress.
All countries in the Region now have laws and regulations that require specific warnings on tobacco packages. Nine countries require these warnings to be graphic. All countries have sought to curb tobacco advertising, promotion and sponsorship. Some have done so comprehensively. Across the Region, Member countries are adopting and acting on the six MPOWER strategies to support FCTC implementation, and are even going beyond them: Alternatives to tobacco farming, for example, are being explored.
Nevertheless, further progress can be made. Taxation of tobacco products, for instance, can be simplified and increased. A number of countries in the Region continue to go light on tobacco price mark-ups, while non-uniform or complex tax structures persist. By simplifying and increasing taxation of tobacco products, Member countries can not only discourage the uptake and continued use of tobacco, but also help recoup the cost it inflicts on all of society.
Tobacco advertising, promotion and sponsorship likewise demands attention. Though countries have made progress diminishing its prominence, indirect and surrogate marketing continues. Even where legislation is comprehensive, weak enforcement means tobacco branding is often displayed at points of sale, while non-tobacco-products can be found promoting brand loyalty. All forms of direct and indirect advertising must end. No more should effective marketing herald addiction, disease and death across the South-East Asia Region.
And as WHO’s new report emphasizes, comprehensive systems to monitor tobacco use and prevention policies should be implemented Region-wide. Gathering high-quality information on tobacco usage and policy implementation is critical for governments to promote health, save health care costs and identify tobacco industry interference in policymaking and implementation. To support this, WHO South-East Asia Region is evaluating implementation of tobacco control policies in all Member countries. In doing so it is looking beyond MPOWER to the broader Sustainable Development Agenda and its emphasis on universal health coverage.
As the Sustainable Development Goals outline, diminishing tobacco usage is key to enhancing health and development across the South-East Asia Region, and indeed the world. By building on the successes outlined in WHO’s new report, and fortifying and scaling up comprehensive tobacco control measures, a healthier, more prosperous future is within reach.