Plenary examines the impact of the tobacco industry’s corporate abuse on economically disenfranchised groups

At the second plenary of The Union World Conference on Lung Health Gustavo Sóñora, the Union’s legal consultant for tobacco control in Latin America, urged governments to remain focused on the World Health Organization’s Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (WHO FCTC). He called for greater implementation of the treaty’s Article 5.3 which is designed to protect public health policy from the vested interests of the tobacco industry, and he highlighted the danger of new initiatives funded by the tobacco industry which claim to be designed to advance public health.

He highlighted the relationship between human rights law and tobacco control policy, saying:

“The right to health is a universally accepted principal. National laws are one of the most powerful tools for defending public health. The World Health Organization’s Framework Convention on Tobacco Control should be implemented through law – not through any weaker form of legislation.”

In the session focusing on tobacco industry corporate abuse, chaired by Jeff Collin, Professor of Global Health Policy at Edinburgh University, Adriana Carvalho, legal director at Alliance for the Control of Tobacco Use (ACT) Health Promotion, presented on the business strategy of the tobacco industry in Brazil. She summarised it as damaging public health and exploiting vulnerable groups.

“The tobacco industry has a history of high profits with no liability for the environmental, social and human costs. In Brazil research shows that the cost of tobacco use to the health system is $15 billion. But in tax they pay only $3 billion. There is a cost for us all.”

Carvalho highlighted the particular plight of tobacco growers in Brazil. She described how rural workers were pitched against multinational companies and the impact of the inequality of this relationship – child labour, indebtedness, low income, and green tobacco sickness.

Delegates also heard from Dr Lorraine Greaves, Senior Investigator at the Centre of Excellence for Women’s Health, Vancouver, Canada, about the meanings of smoking to women. Commenting on the women she had spoken to for her research she said:

“Many drew links between smoking and the violence in their lives, with some women using smoking as a means to diffuse angry situations. Smoking amongst women is highly related to trauma in their lives. Unless we recognise this issue we will not be able to support women to quit tobacco.”

She called for tobacco control efforts to step away from shaming women who smoke, but rather to provide the support needed. Her research has identified that in some cases pregnant women who smoke do not seek support for fear of being stigmatised. 

The session was concluded by Alicia Yolanda Reyes Alexander, a journalist and activist based in Guadalajara, who spoke powerfully of the devastation tobacco use had brought to her family, and called for smoke-free laws in Mexico to protect health and de-normalise smoking.

Alexander, who also works with Codice, a civil society organisation, described their ongoing struggle to create a smoke-free Guadalajara – where the regulation is complete, but not yet approved. She said this life-saving policy was being actively delayed.

“I don’t know if some businessmen are more important than the health of all the people in Guadalajara. But in this city, every day, 11 to 13 people die of tobacco-related diseases. And it looks like authorities don’t care, they don’t listen to us.”

During this session the Union Scientific Prize was awarded to Dr Sarita Shah recognising her outstanding collaborative and broad-reaching work on drug-resistant TB in Africa.