Ladies and Gentlemen,
It gives me great pleasure to welcome you to this meeting. This is the first
time in its 50-year existence that the World Health Organization is exercising
its constitutional mandate to negotiate a legally binding treaty. Geneva has
made major contributions to international thinking on disarmament, human rights,
environment and trade issues. Several treaties that have changed the course of
history have been negotiated under the umbrella of the United Nations system. A
great success story has been the Montreal Protocol to the Vienna Convention for
the Protection of the Ozone layer.
It is about time we add health to that illustrious list. The Framework
Convention on Tobacco Control, when ready, will give the world a new instrument
with which to address and steer the global health debate. I believe I am not
overstating the case when I say that this moment is our tryst with history.
At last year’s World Health Assembly when I was elected Director-General of
WHO, I said tobacco is a killer. Nothing that I have heard or seen in the past
fifteen months has made me change my mind. On the contrary. As I look at the
science and the evidence, resource allocation and health priorities, I am
appalled at the neglect to which global and national tobacco control has been
subjected. Just last week I visited the International Agency for Cancer Research
in Lyon together with the Executive Board of WHO. We there got yet another
daunting illustration of the increasing disease burden which tobacco is
increasingly loading on to the health systems of this world. A totally
unnecessary burden - a burden which all countries, but especially the developing
countries, cannot afford to carry.
In this very building, five months ago, Health Ministers and officials from
WHO’s member states had the foresight and courage to speak up strongly against
tobacco. The World Health Assembly voted unanimously to start work on the
Framework Convention. Tobacco exporting and importing countries, surveying the
death and destruction caused by tobacco on their people, their economies and
their environment, called for accelerated work to begin on the Framework
Convention. Their message was this: take action so that the global spread of
tobacco is circumscribed. Take action so that the number of tobacco deaths can
be brought down. So our mandate is clear.
Our mandate is clear because the stories of death and destruction reaching us
from all corners of the world leave no doubt about what needs to be done. That
message says tobacco kills. Our mandate is clear because the science that
underpins our work is indisputable.
Tobacco now kills four million people a year. In about thirty years, that
figure will rise to 10 million. Ten million deaths - that is more than the total
deaths from malaria, maternal and major childhood diseases and tuberculosis
combined. Globally between 82,000 and 99,000 young people start smoking every
day, and by young, we mean as young as 12 years old. In China, if present
smoking patterns continue, about a third of the 300 million Chinese males now
aged 0-29 will eventually be killed by tobacco. That is one in three. Countries
like Canada and Sweden, which long had bucked the tobacco epidemic now see it
rearing its head again. No peoples and no countries are safe from the tobacco
Ladies and gentlemen, if we have to control malaria, we have to understand
the vector. It is not different with tobacco. We all know that tobacco is
injurious to health, but how many of us know the extent to which the tobacco
industry has gone to optimize nicotine so as to deliver just the right amount to
the consumer for addiction to occur? Tobacco is a powerfully addictive
substance. There is mounting evidence to suggest that the tobacco industry has
subverted science, public health and political processes to sell a product that
addicts its consumers before killing them. Available data shows that most of
today’s smokers started in their teens. And when we speak about adolescents
getting addicted, then we no longer speak about freedom of choice. Then we - as
representatives of governments and the international community - have to take
our full responsibility and talk about children’s rights. Children have the
right to be protected from addiction.
Tobacco is a global challenge - that is the message of today’s event. WHO
is the only international multilateral organization that can bring together the
necessary technical and public health expertise but also gather the political
backing necessary to control the global spread of tobacco. The Framework
Convention process will craft a response that will build consensus and
strengthen the hands of parliaments and governments to protect the health of
their peoples and especially of the young.
WHO’s message is that of public health. But tobacco control touches on
broader sectors of society. The bottom line is that tobacco is not only bad for
health, it is also bad for the economy at large. And methods from beyond the
health sector have to be applied if we are to succeed. Such as economic and
financial measures: A recent World Bank report ‘’Curbing the Epidemic -
Governments and the Economics of Tobacco Control’’ argues succinctly that an
informed mix of policy options ranging from tax increases to non-price measures
can help governments bring down tobacco deaths. On an average, a 10 percent
price rise on a pack of cigarettes can be expected to reduce demand by 4 percent
in high-income countries and by about 8 percent in low and middle income
countries. The young are particularly sensitive to price. The report makes very
clear that there are simply no economic arguments in favour of tobacco.
We need a multi-sectoral approach. In addition to ministries of health, in
many of our countries tobacco control will be routed through ministries of
agriculture, trade, education, finance and social affairs. A truly viable public
health tool has to be reflected in all those areas of governance which have a
direct impact on people’s lives and health.
Over the past year, we have worked hard to build strong partnerships with the
United Nations family. As of this year, WHO is the lead agency for a new United
Nations Ad-Hoc Inter-Agency Task Force on Tobacco Control. It intensifies the
joint response of the UN system to the tobacco epidemic and provides a multi-sectoral
mechanism for tackling the epidemic. Just two weeks ago in New York, 15 UN
agencies met to discuss plans to strengthen tobacco control across the UN
An important tool has already emerged with our work with UNICEF - we are
jointly looking at the potential power of the Convention on the Rights of the
Child. Work is ongoing to unleash the potential to monitor the tobacco epidemic
as it affects young people and to use the Convention provisions to call upon
national governments to take effective steps to implement comprehensive tobacco
control measures. By linking work on the Commission to tobacco control, a
broader constituency of advocates for action will emerge.
We are also working closely with the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO)
to study the long-term impact of a world free of tobacco so that we can seek
support for farmers as they slowly move to other economic activities.
The Framework Convention and related protocols will provide basic global
standards for tobacco control and will address trans-national issues like global
advertising and promotion bans, smuggling, product regulation and trade. This
basic regulatory framework will provide countries with adequate scope to improve
upon so as to reflect their specific needs.
What we start today is a process. There will be some hard issues. There will
be some differences of views as to the pace and scope of our work. But I believe
we can work that out. I am pleased to see that so many countries have sent
eminent delegations to take part in this work.
Today, tobacco claims one new victim every eight seconds. Future generations
will be judging our efforts. I would like to hope that we can stand up to our
responsibilities. When the history of international health is written some time
in future, my hope and expectation is that this meeting in Geneva will figure as
one that changed the course of public health.