WHO Director-General commemorates 10th anniversary of historic tobacco treaty

Dr Margaret Chan
Director-General of the World Health Organization

Address at an event celebrating the 10th anniversary of the WHO Framework Convention on Tobacco Control
Geneva, Switzerland

27 February 2015

Honourable ministers, distinguished ambassadors, representatives of the Geneva missions, esteemed civil society organizations, colleagues in the UN system, ladies and gentlemen,

Let me thank the Convention Secretariat who have worked with others to celebrate the tenth anniversary of the coming into force of the WHO Framework Convention on Tobacco Control.

This is one of the most important anniversary celebrations I have ever attended. Tobacco use stands out as the single greatest cause of preventable morbidity and mortality worldwide.

The WHO Framework Convention on Tobacco Control stands out as the single most powerful preventive instrument available to public health. I want to commend the vision of Dr Brundtland in taking this forward.

So: happy birthday to a landmark treaty that already has such a solid record of success.

Actually, Dr Costa e Silva and I, among others, were the early midwives, because both of us were asked to serve as co-vice-chairs of a working group set up in 1999 to propose draft elements of the Framework Convention. Everywhere I go, I promote the Framework Convention.

The day when the Framework Convention came into force, ten years ago, was truly a landmark victory for public health on many fronts. Let me mention just three.

First, it saves lives. A recent study in 41 countries that adopted at least one high-impact demand reduction measure estimated that the number of smokers dropped by 14.8 million, averting a total of 7.4 million deaths attributed to smoking.

Second, it demonstrates the persuasive power of evidence-based arguments. When public health policies cross purposes with the interests of powerful economic operators, economic arguments trump public health time and time again. Not this time. Public health won.

We can thank the research community for the fact that all provisions in the treaty are anchored in impeccable science. We can thank support from an articulate civil society that has been just as relentless in setting out the facts as the tobacco industry has been in spreading its lies.

Third, the Framework Convention is an outstanding model of how multiple non-health sectors, and multiple UN agencies, can work together seamlessly to support a health objective. The importance of this model continues to grow as more and more of the 21st century’s biggest threats to health have root causes that lie in non-health sectors.

In fact, full implementation of the Framework Convention would deal the greatest single preventive blow to the four biggest noncommunicable diseases, namely heart disease, cancer, diabetes, and chronic respiratory diseases.

Ladies and gentlemen,

Much remains to be done. We face three main challenges.

The first is “tobacco control fatigue”. We need to reignite public and political will to implement tough control measures.

As tobacco use has declined in many countries, so has the will to enhance control. Never forget: industry is eager to recruit the next generation of smokers, especially targeting women.

The second is failure to implement the most effective measures. For example, we have good evidence that tobacco taxes do the most to reduce demand. Yet this measure is one of the least implemented.

The third challenge is to counter tobacco industry interference. This is the biggest challenge mentioned by Parties to the Convention.

As the battle to control tobacco moves into the courts, industry is using trade and investment agreements to legally challenge government actions.

Threats of lengthy and costly litigation are being used to intimidate governments that are trying to do the right thing for their people. I can see many in the audience: Australia, Uruguay, UK, Norway, the US, and many others. Thanks for your continued resolve to protect the health of your people.

You will be hearing more about these issues today.

The tobacco industry fights hardest against those measure that work best, like price increases, bans on advertising and sponsorship, large pictorial warnings on packages, and plain packaging.

There is another area of industry interference I need to stress. Tobacco companies are profiling themselves to governments as partners in combatting illicit trade in tobacco products.

Not true. Don’t fall into that trap. The tobacco industry is complicit in this trade.

I urge all parties to ratify the Protocol to eliminate illicit trade in tobacco products. To date, only six countries have done so. We need 40 countries to move this Protocol into international law.

Doing so would be a good anniversary gift as the Framework Convention moves into its second decade.

Let me thank you for your presence here. This is a good demonstration of your commitment to the Framework Convention.

Thank you.