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This week, about 3,000 anti-tobacco health and policy experts are expected to attend the 17th World Conference on Tobacco or Health, taking place in Cape Town, South Africa. However, to the shock of many, Former Executive Director for Noncommunicable Diseases at the WHO, and one of the architects the WHO’s Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (FCTC), Dr. Derek Yach, is not allowed to attend.

The name of the conference, “Tobacco OR Health”, implies that the two cannot co-exist. “The cigarette is the single most deadly consumer product ever made,” said Ruth Malone, editor-in-chief of the Tobacco Control journal. And despite the fact that everyone agrees that cigarettes kill, it is time to perhaps question whether there is a more effective approach that will lead to decreased smoking rates, rather than insisting on being hostile towards Big Tobacco.

PMI’s Foundation for a Smoke-Free World

Dr. Derek Yach had tried to assure his peers that he has not “gone over to the dark side,” adding that his relationship with PMI is based on an opportunity to decrease smoking rates, not trust.
On the other hand, last September, renowned Big Tobacco company Philip Morris International Inc (PMI), announced that it would fund a foundation that will fight smoking, and Dr. Yach accepted the position of President. Naturally, many have criticized his decision as they find it hard to believe that a company that still sells cigarettes, actually has honest motifs.

In response to such concerns, Yach had said that he wants to assure his peers that he has not “gone over to the dark side,” adding that his relationship with PMI is based on opportunity not trust. “I am not naive enough to believe that Philip Morris is doing this because of the warm fuzzy feeling that they want to lower the death rates. No. What they want to do is have a product that is less risky and that makes them profits. That is the beginning and end of it.”

He had added that he’s aware that many of his former colleagues at the WHO and current peers disagree with his approach, and that working with PMI is also something he struggles with personally, however he believes that anything possible should be done to reduce smoking. “With one billion lives hanging in the balance, we urgently must do more to cut the adult smoking rate,” he said. “Too much is at stake.”

Choosing dialogue and collaboration vs hostility

Derek Yach has been trying to explain that in order to combat the current smoking epidemic, dialogue and collaboration is needed, not hostility. “I am deeply disappointed, therefore, by WHO’s complete mischaracterisation of the nature, structure and intent of the Foundation in its recent statements — and especially by its admonition to others not to work together,” said Yach.

“I am deeply disappointed, therefore, by WHO’s complete mischaracterisation of the nature, structure and intent of the Foundation in its recent statements — and especially by its admonition to others not to work together.” Dr. Derek Yach, President, Foundation for a Smoke-Free World

He has made it clear that the foundation will be a non-profit organization devoid of influence from the tobacco industry, and any research it carries out will be peer reviewed. Sadly, his pleas seem to have been falling on deaf ears.

Looking at the bigger picture

Another anti-smoking expert  and Adjunct Professor at the Centre for Health Law, Policy & Ethics at University of Ottawa, David Sweanor, is on the same page as Yach. He is inviting everyone to consider a different, and perhaps more effective approach to the usual “let’s wrestle tobacco companies to the ground” kind of reasoning.

Like Yach, Sweanor is suggesting working together with tobacco companies and making use of the resources they are offering, in order to truly understand the industry and help turn it into a sustainable one that helps smokers quit.

Read Further: Health 24

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