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POLITICS: Smoking Chokes Progress on U.N. Millennium Goals

Thalif Deen

UNITED NATIONS, Jun 8 2004 (IPS) - The U.N.’s Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), aimed at eradicating extreme poverty and eliminating deadly diseases by 2015, are being undermined by the rise in tobacco consumption, according to a U.N. report released Tuesday.

”Tobacco and poverty create a vicious circle,” says the 18-page study prepared by the U.N. AdHoc Inter-Agency Task Force on Tobacco Control. ”Tobacco increases poverty, and tobacco products tend to be more widely used among the poor.”

As a result, says the report, tobacco control has to be recognised ”as a key component of efforts to reduce poverty, improve development and progress towards the MDGs.”

The Task Force recommends the ”deadly nexus” – the link between tobacco smoking and disease, poverty and hunger – be recognised in the context of development assistance programmes aimed at the attainment of the U.N.’s goals.

The World Health Organisation (WHO), estimates the number of smokers in the world today at 1.3 million, and predicts that will rise to 1.7 million by 2025.

The eight MDGs, approved by the U.N. General Assembly in September 2000, constitute an ambitious agenda to improve the human condition significantly by the year 2015. They include reducing poverty, hunger, disease, illiteracy, environmental degradation and discrimination against women.

”Tobacco has a profound effect on poverty and malnutrition in low-income countries, particularly when expenditures on tobacco products divert scarce resources that poor families might otherwise have spent on food,” the study says.

The high prevalence of tobacco use among men with low incomes and low education has serious poverty implications, because the risk of developing dangerous diseases and dying at an early age is substantially increased, it adds.

The new study, which will go before a ministerial meeting of the U.N. Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC) Jun. 28-Jul. 23, says that over 10.5 million malnourished people in Bangladesh could have an adequate diet if they spent their money on food instead of tobacco.

In three provinces in Vietnam, smokers spent 3.6 times more on tobacco than on education, 2.5 times more for tobacco than clothes, and 1.9 times more for tobacco than for health care.

In India, some street children and homeless people spend more on tobacco than on food, education and savings.

The study also cites poor, rural households in southwest China that spend more than 11 percent of their total expenditure on cigarettes, while students in Niger spent about 40 percent on cigarettes and manual labourers about 25 percent of their incomes.

Of the estimated 1.3 billion smokers, 84 percent live in developing and transitional economy countries. Today, about five million deaths annually are tobacco related. And habitual tobacco use is projected to cause an estimated 7.0 million deaths annually in developing countries by 2030, about 50 percent of them in Asia.

In developing countries, among poor families, the proportion of household expenditures used to purchase tobacco products can easily represent up to 10 percent of total household expenditures.

”This means that these families have less money to spend on basic items such as food, education and health care,” the study said.

Patti Lynn, campaign director for Infact, a major anti-tobacco lobbying group, told IPS the link between the MDGs and tobacco smoking is very relevant, and is more the reason why the international community should ratify the Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (FCTC), which was unanimously adopted by the 192 member states of the WHO last May.

The convention has been described as the first public health treaty that includes comprehensive provisions for tobacco control.

Although 122 countries have signed the convention, only 18 have so far ratified it. The treaty needs 40 ratifications before it can have the force of international law.

The United States has signed the convention but not ratified it. So have Japan, China, South Africa and Brazil.

Lynn said most countries that sign treaties eventually ratify them. But the United States is an exception to the rule.

”When you sign a treaty, you are bound by the spirit of the law,” she said. ”But we are sceptical whether the signing of the treaty by the United States was a public relations manoeuvre,” she added because she is not optimistic Washington will ratify it in the near future.

U.S. reluctance to ratify the convention is primarily due to pressure from U.S.-based tobacco companies, which constitute a powerful political lobbying group on Capitol Hill.

The study, however, does not make refer to the industry’s intense lobbying efforts to undermine WHO’s anti-tobacco treaty.

Just before the convention was adopted companies launched a major campaign either to dilute it or to prevent the treaty from being approved. The convention calls for a worldwide ban on tobacco advertisements and tobacco sponsorships of sporting events.

The Framework Convention Alliance, a coalition of anti-tobacco non-governmental organisations (NGOs), is now lobbying to prevent tobacco sponsorship of Formula 1 racing currently being planned in China and Bahrain.

”Many are concerned that tobacco advertising would be beamed throughout China and worldwide on television from the races if tobacco advertising is allowed. The event will take place, but there is a window of opportunity for damage limitation,” the Alliance said.

Judy Wilkenfeld of the Washington-based Campaign for Tobacco Free Kids told IPS the relationship between tobacco and poverty has been well established.

”Tobacco smoking not only impoverishes the person who smokes but also the rest of the family,” she said.

Wilkenfeld also pointed out that in many tobacco-growing countries, tobacco is replacing food crops. In countries where many people live at sustenance levels, this is having a devastating impact on people’s lives, she added.

The U.N. study says tobacco consumption is a major direct contributor to a rise in non-communicable diseases and an associative contributor to communicable diseases such as tuberculosis.

”Poverty facilitates the spread of diseases and their treatment can impose a heavy financial burden on poor households,” it adds.

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