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Tobacco: the smoking gun

Posted Aug 25 2009 7:26pm 1 Comment

My geographical ability is about on a par with my sense of direction, quite possibly because I haven't looked at an atlas since the school system stopped legally obliging me to do so. But I looked at one this morning.

That's the Tobacco Atlas, published by the American Cancer Society in conjunction with the World Lung Foundation and launched at the Livestrong Global Cancer Summit today. From a distance, it looks like any other atlas.

But it's all about tobacco. There are maps showing the tobacco use of men, women, boys and girls. There are maps of smoking deaths, of cost of smoking to the economy, of cost to the smoker. There are even maps showing where there are marketing bans, where there are smoke free areas, where litigation against tobacco companies is happening.

It's a sad and scary read.

Of course, I knew that smoking is a Bad Thing and I knew that Lots Of People Smoke And They Shouldn't But It's Not That Easy To Stop and I knew that Tobacco Companies Don't Behave Particularly Well. But I didn't know that:
- every day in 2010, 12 million cigarettes will be smoked every minute around the world
- more than 25% of adult male deaths in North America and Europe were caused by smoking in 2000
- the direct and indirect cost of smoking to the UK economy alone is in excess of $2,655,000,000
- if smoking trends continue as they are, tobacco will kill 250 million of today's children and teenagers.

Introducing the Tobacco Atlas, Dr John Seffrin of the American Cancer Society said that, as far as cancer is concerned, "there's no one area where we can save more lives than in tobacco control."

That makes sense. But it's not easy. Dr Judith Mackay reminded us that - even though "we are not beating this epidemic yet" - there is good news too.

The good news is that to date 166 countries have ratified the WHO framework convention on tobacco control, which has "kernels of good national policy enshrined in law and obligation". (USA and Indonesia still need to ratify. Come on, you two. Get with the programme.) Also, she says, "We know what to do about this epidemic, and one of the ways we know what to do is the ferocity of the tobacco industry in terms of what it attacks. It attacks tax increases, the creation of smoke free areas, and advertising bans." (I like this woman's attitude. I wouldn't like to cross her.) And the increase in funding into non-communicable diseases is helping in tobacco control too.
At the end of the press conference, I got brave, and I asked my first question: to what extent is legislation the answer and to what extent is education the answer in tobacco control and reducing the tobacco burden? Dr Mackay was very clear that "there are some things that only governments can do", such as tax increases, mandating smoke free areas, and banning advertising. There's work for companies and individuals to do too, but legislation is a cornerstone of tobacco control and "getting across the idea that the normal climate of society is smoke free". In fact, said Dr Mackay, the one thing that would have the single biggest impact would be increasing taxation - something else only governments can do.

Then I got braver, and I asked another question. I asked what the fact that delegates had been seen outside the Livestrong conference smoking said about the tobacco problem. Lance Armstrong answered that one. He told me that he often hears from people who tell him that people in Livestrong t-shirts, people at cycle races, people wearing yellow Livestrong bands, are smoking.... and he told me that he and Doug (Ulman, CEO of Livestrong), had been talking about whether anyone at the Foundation smokes. (Apparently Doug thinks that one or two of them do.) He concluded by saying that we need to help people to quit. Which we do. And soon, for all our sakes.

I've also got a copy of the Cancer Atlas. I'll tell you about that another time.

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Tobacco causes 87 percent of lung cancer deaths and has been strongly linked to cancers of the esophagus, bladder, pancreas, stomach, colon, cervix, liver, and kidney. If current patterns continue, 25 million Americans alive today, including 5 million children, will die prematurely from smoking related diseases.

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