WHO Director-General addresses tobacco conference

Dr Margaret Chan
Director-General of the World Health Organization

Keynote address at the World Conference on Tobacco or Health
Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates

18 March 2015

Thank you. I always enjoy attending these conferences as this group of participants is so strongly united in purpose, so vocal in articulating its views and the evidence behind them, and so determined to reduce addiction to a deadly product.

Also, participants are never alone in these conferences, never without an attentive external audience looking to see the next trends in the battle between tobacco or health.

The tobacco industry, too, is always with us, watching for any wavering of resolve that can be exploited, waiting for any opportunity to interfere.

As a key message to countries, let me borrow the slogan from a high-profile tobacco advertising campaign: Don't be a maybe.

The campaign has been banned in some wealthy countries for violating the ethical code that prohibits marketing to youth, yet continues undeterred in the developing world, the tobacco industry’s promised land for expanding its markets.

Maybe tobacco control has done its job. Maybe implementation of the WHO Framework Convention on Tobacco Control, in force now for a decade, has reached its limits.

Largely thanks to legislative measures, smoking has plummeted in several countries. A WHO report being launched during this conference shows that the proportion of male smokers is going down in 125 countries. Non-smoking is becoming the norm.

Maybe this is good enough. Maybe it’s time for the international community to move on to other preventable causes of disease.

No, on several counts.

The tobacco industry would be delighted to see a drop in the drive for control, especially regulatory control. They invest heavily in making this happen.

Tobacco use is rising fastest in countries where control measures are relatively new. We need to close in on the enemy, and not let it outflank us.

Cutting tobacco use further is an extremely attractive and rewarding target. Tobacco use is one of the biggest risk factors for NCDs, and especially for cancer. It is also one of the most responsive to control measures.

Don’t let anyone tell you that tobacco control has had its day. You can count on industry to keep the battle lines fresh and vigorous. As the fight for tobacco control moves into the courts, the latest manoeuvres challenge the sovereign authority of countries to regulate in the public interest.

The tobacco industry and its front groups love to talk about the “slippery slope”. They argue: plain packaging for cigarettes today. The same for chocolates and fizzy drinks tomorrow.

No. The real slippery slope is this: depriving governments of their sovereign right to use legislation to protect citizens from harm. This is a battle that pitches the power and authority of governments against the power of corporations.

The Framework Convention was a victory for the supremacy of public health concerns over economic interests. We cannot let that victory be stolen from us, especially as the Framework Convention enters its second decade, moving forward on a solid track-record of success.

Countries wishing to protect their citizens through larger pictorial warnings on packages or by introducing plain packaging are being intimidated by tobacco industry threats of lengthy and costly litigation. Maybe countries, especially the poorer ones, should bow down to these threats.

No. Too much is at stake. WHO stands shoulder-to-shoulder with parties implementing the Framework Convention. I expect the community represented in this room likewise extends its solidarity to these countries.

WHO will not be intimidated, and neither will you. We do not have the riches of the tobacco industry, but we are right and we are resolved.

In the Philip Morris challenge to Uruguay’s tobacco packaging laws, WHO has filed an amicus brief with the International Centre for Settlement of Investment Disputes.

I am very pleased to report that the tribunal hearing the claim has accepted WHO’s request to submit the brief and rejected tobacco industry arguments that WHO is biased. That’s one big win for the public good.

Australia’s legislation that mandates plain packaging is also being challenged in a dispute being considered at the World Trade Organization. Maybe plain packaging will cause all the problems trotted out by the tobacco industry, including an explosion in smuggling, criminal activity, even terrorism.

No. The tobacco industry is complicit in illegal trade. Smuggling is one of its business strategies. I urge all parties to ratify the Protocol to Eliminate Illicit Trade in Tobacco Products. We need this legal instrument. Please talk to your Presidents and Prime Ministers, sign up to that protocol, and make it a law.

We see a double-standard at work here. Industry insists that no credible evidence supports the benefits of plain packaging. Yet where is the evidence that smuggling, criminal activity, and other bogey-men will follow? There is evidence whatsoever.

Industry has had a Plain Packs Group in place since 1993. In its internal documents at that time, industry was adamant that it did not want to see plain packaging introduced anywhere in the world, while publicly arguing that packaging has no impact on consumption. Then why fight it?

The tobacco industry can be trusted in one area only. The vigour of its opposition to a control measure is good evidence of the effectiveness of that measure. If they fight you strongly, it means you have hit them where it hurts. This is true for tobacco taxes. And this is true for plain packaging.

Despite industry’s best efforts to block plain packaging, the train has already left the station. The evidence base is strong, empirical, and comes from well-qualified, respected, and credible sources. I thank all the researchers who have contributed to this evidence base. We know that plain packaging works.

Following Australia’s lead, more than 10 countries are considering plain packaging. Just two weeks ago, Ireland became the second country to introduce plain packaging as law. The United Kingdom, Burkina Faso, and New Zealand are the next most advanced. But others, including Chile, Panama, France, Norway, and Turkey are not far behind.

Bans on tobacco advertising, promotion, and sponsorship are not comprehensive as long as colour logos and other branding continue to operate as silent salesmen.

I have a final bit of advice. The ad agency responsible for the don’t-be-a-maybe campaign has proudly recorded its strategy, including a reinforcement of the brand’s values, namely “be true, bold, and forever forward.”

While I am not sure the tobacco industry has many values, I do believe these words make good objectives for tobacco control.

Be true to the evidence that tobacco kills. Be bold in implementing the Framework Convention. And be forever forward, ideally one step ahead of Big Tobacco.

Thank you.