Tobacco is arguably one of the most significant threats to public health we have ever faced. Since the publication of the landmark U.S. Surgeon General’s Report on Tobacco and Health in 1964, that provided evidence linking smoking to diseases of nearly all organs of the body (see graph below), the international community slowly began to realize that a century-long epidemic of cigarette smoking was causing an enormous, avoidable public health catastrophe across the world.
The cigarette puffs surrounded the 18-month-old boy as he stood next to his chain-smoking grandparents in the living room, while a 3-year-old girl fetched a can of Pepsi-Cola from the fridge in the kitchen. Just across in the dining area, a 7-month-old boy was being fed a creamy, sugary, chocolate cake, while a bunch of other kids were playing “house” in the front yard by actually eating unlimited number of chocolate bars, cake, and chips while drinking soda.
I could not believe my eyes. Observing these behaviors as a parent myself, it seemed like I was watching the slow death and diseases haunting these children for the rest of their lives.
It has always been like this, but I had never noticed it until I moved out of Iraq and became a parent. I grew up in a place where the unhealthy lifestyle was not a major concern. There are many other, more pressing concerns people there tend to worry about — and rightfully so — than what they eat and drink.
However, what people in my war-torn home country may not realize is that it’s not only car bombs that can kill them. Cigarettes, junk food, and soda can too.
As part of the 2016 World Bank Group-International Monetary Fund Spring Meetings held this past week in Washington, D.C., a fascinating panel discussion, A New Vision for Financing Development, took place on Sunday, April 17. Moderated by Michelle Fleury, BBC's New York business correspondent, it included World Bank Group President Jim Yong Kim, Bill Gates, Justine Greening (UK Secretary of State for International Development), Raghuram Rajan (Governor of the Reserve Bank of India), and Seth Terkper (Minister for Finance and Economic Planning of Ghana).
The panel was in consensus about the current challenging economic and social environment facing the world as a whole. That environment includes low rates of economic growth across the world, drastic reductions in the price of commodities that are impacting negatively low-and middle-income countries, rising inequality, frequent natural disasters and pandemics, increased number of displaced populations and refugees due to conflict and violence spilling across national borders and continents, and the ambitious United Nations 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, which includes a set of 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). A question debated in the panel was, Where will the resources be found to address these challenges? This question is critical under the current scenario if countries are to continue to build on the progress achieved over the last decade and maintain previous gains.
Earlier this fall, my oldest son invited me to watch him run his first half marathon in Durham, North Carolina. While standing at the starting line, facing hundreds of runners of different ages, I could not help but be amazed by the irony of the situation: In the midst of a region in the United States known as “tobacco road,” there was tangible evidence of a significant, healthier turn in people’s norms and behaviors.
Let’s be clear. Tobacco use, and its negative health, social and economic impact, is not a global problem that is simply going away.
As documented in a recent study, despite significant reductions in the estimated prevalence of daily smoking observed at the global level for both men and women since 1980, the actual number of smokers has increased significantly over the last three decades as the result of population growth. In 2012, it is estimated that close to one billion people were smokers, up from 721 million in 1980.
Clearly, tobacco use is a global epidemic. If we do not want to be passive spectators to the unhindered growth of this threat to global health, then political will at the highest levels of government needs to be galvanized, coupled with sustained support from civil society and international organizations. This is required not only to shine light upon this deadly but entirely preventable threat, but more importantly, to promote effective and sustained action to deal with it.
A new World Health Organization (WHO) report on tobacco taxation, launched today in Manila, raises a troubling question for policymakers across the world: If, as shown by scientific evidence, tobacco is a leading global disease risk factor, why then are so few governments levying appropriate levels of tax on cigarettes and other tobacco products?
On May 31, the global health community will mark World No Tobacco Day 2015. This year’s theme focuses on the public health priority of stopping the illicit trade of tobacco products. Perhaps this is a good occasion to clarify that raising tobacco taxes to make this habit-forming product unaffordable is not the cause of illicit trade. Let me explain.
Last week, I participated in the 16th World Conference on Tobacco or Health (WCTOH) in Abu Dhabi--a scientific event where the latest developments in tobacco control were presented.