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 Politics & Policy





Framework Convention on Tobacco Control

FCTC and developing countries

By Riaz Missen

Oct 22 - 28, 2001

An ever growing realization prevails in the corridors of World Health Organization (WHO) that untimely death of individuals affected by cardiovascular diseases and cancer is a great loss of and threat to mankind. "There are numerous factors that influence this 'new epidemic' of noncommunicable diseases, but one is overshadowing all others: tobacco," Dr. Brundtland, the Director-General of WHO said in her address to 'Third International Conference on Priorities in Healthcare' last September. True to her conviction, she has aligned with her a worldwide network of NGO's to lobby with the governments to eliminate the industry. The cause is noble but ground realities must also be faced. One is that there are millions who depend on it for their livelihood.

Relating smoking with cardiovascular diseases and cancer, she said tobacco deaths were more than those caused by malaria and HIV/AIDS. "Besides the terrible human cost, these deaths present huge economic costs to societies," she told the participants of the Conference. As a physician, she strongly believes that 4 million people die in the world due to tobacco-related diseases annually and that this number is to rise to 10 million by 2030. The figures she reveals are interesting: "Cardiovascular diseases accounted for about one in ten deaths in Africa in 1999; three in ten deaths in South East Asia; 33 percent of all deaths in America, as well in WHO's Eastern Mediterranean and Western Pacific region; and 50 percent deaths in all European region". Similarly, to her, another tobacco related disease is cancer that accounts for one in 20 death in Africa; one in 14 death in South East Asia and in the Eastern Mediterranean region; and one in five deaths in Americas, Europe and the Western Pacific. "That is why I declared global tobacco control as a priority," is her conclusion.

The WHO has planned to get signed from the states, 'Framework Convention on Tobacco Control' (FCTC) by 2003. The implementation of the Convention would mean increased excise duty on cigarettes making the product unaffordable for the consumers; bans on tobacco advertising, marketing, and sponsorship; tough counter advertising; and, tight control on smuggling of cigarettes. Going by the logic of FCTC, higher the GST on cigarette, on the one hand, would diminish the purchasing power of the consumers and, on the other hand, raise the revenue of the governments that it could use on providing better healthcare facilities to their subjects. The Governments would be obliged, as signatories to FCTC, ban the advertisements of tobacco products to prevent the youth adopting the habit. To prevent the availability of cheaper brands in the market, an international regime would be established to check smuggling of the goods from the neighbouring countries. All this would mean loss of profit to sustain the industry. And the farmers would switch to alternate crops for their livelihood. This is her basic logic.

Notwithstanding the loss to human health, as projected by WHO, the governments in tobacco producing countries are critical about any efforts of the international body to curb the industry that has become backbone of their economy. These governments become very cagey while responding to the call of WHO to curb their major source of foreign exchange. For Kenya, it would mean the loss of jobs to its 600,000 people. The implementation of FCTC will render 47% labourers in Malawi jobless and will deprive the country of more than 70% of foreign currency earnings from tobacco. Similarly, tobacco industry earns 35-40% foreign exchange for Zimbabwe, employs 1.6 million people, 47% of the labour force of the country. According to a Reuters' report, The UN, European Union, and Waterhouse Coopers researchers findings suggest that there is no possibility of diversifying Malawi's economy to sugar, tea and coffee for the next ten years. On the other hand an international ban on smoking would exacerbate situation in Malawi whose 90% of the budget is dependent upon donor handouts.

The underlying assumption of the whole plan of WHO is that through increasing the price of cigarettes, the revenues of the government would be increased and through checking the smuggling the consumers would be prevented from availing themselves the alternate cheaper brands that would reach the market. Gradually, the demand of cigarettes would die down, as the consumers would not be able to withstand the price hike and thus the industry would be wiped out. The farmers would resort to alternate crops to sustain livelihood. The WHO, interestingly, recommends excluding producers, manufacturers and consumers from the negotiation process in the execution of the agenda.

As far as Pakistan is concerned tobacco cultivation covers 80,000 acres and Tobacco Industry provides directly and indirectly jobs to 3,12,500 people in an era of economic depression. And this number is likely to go up as farmers in NWFP and Northern areas are being increasingly attracted towards tobacco cultivation instead of poppy farming. Moreover, the industry's annual contributions to the government revenue in the form of taxes are to the tune of Rs.18 billion per annum. Thus, any hasty legislation would not be without its socio-economic repercussions. The tobacco growers in NWFP, mostly small landholders, have had replaced poppy farming with it only for the reason that the crop delivers a handsome amount of money within a short time. The farmers also have no access to the policy-making circles of the state as well as the opinion leaders in the press. But realizing the implications of WHO's proposal, the farming communities are increasingly turning towards political activism Afro - Asian countries, an important economic source is tobacco industry.

Given the low level of industrial development in these countries, the only source is the tobacco industry. Thousands of families associated with the business find no alternate source of income. The fact that most of the farmers are small landholders, alternate crops that could yield the same earning within such a short time are no option for them. The number of deaths in these societies is comparatively lower than in the countries with no such industry majority of Malawians don't smoke.

The developed countries are the major contributors to the funds of WHO. The organization is a large bureaucratic set up. And it costs it a lot: to spend $2 on a health project it has to spend $7 on management. And the burden is borne by no other than the developed countries. Let Dr Brundtland proceed with her top priority of tackling noncommunicable diseases caused by tobacco to scale down the economic cost of its rich donors. But the tobacco producing countries will have to think twice before supporting her cause.