Our Perspectives

Tobacco and public health: a wolf in sheep’s clothing?


A young man smokes in Timor-Leste.Health systems in lower and middle-income countries are the ones that can least afford the costs associated with the rise in tobacco consumption. Photo: UNDP in Lebanon.

Tobacco poses challenges to various dimensions of human development, from public health to poverty reduction, gender equality and environmental sustainability. As the market for tobacco products declines in the developed world, multinational corporations have turned their sights to lower- and middle-income countries.

But the health systems in these countries are the ones that can least afford the costs associated with the increased burden that results from the rise in tobacco consumption. To make matters worse, the tobacco industry’s practices in these countries are often in direct contradiction to laws and policies meant to protect public health:

- paying policymakers to block or water down tobacco control laws;
- influencing science and providing biased expert opinion in public and government forums
- delaying measures such as graphical pictorial warnings on cigarette packs;
- offering to draft countries’ national non-communicable disease strategies, so that they focus more on increasing physical activity rather than reducing tobacco consumption.

While tobacco industry interference in policymaking is a long-standing problem, the trend has been picking up steam in developing countries, with WHO Director General Dr. Margaret Chan stating that “the wolf is no longer bothering to wear sheep’s clothing.” 

However, countries working to protect their citizens’ health from interference have a strong tool at their disposal, the WHO Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (FCTC).  

Adopted in 2003, the world’s only health treaty has been ratified by 179 countries comprising more than 90% of the world’s population, making it one of the fastest-adopted treaties in history. Article 5.3 of the treaty specifically aims to protect health policies from the influence of the tobacco industry.

But, while multinational companies can coordinate their strategies internationally, countries have often been isolated in their responses. This explains why, at the latest WHO FCTC Conference of the Parties, the proposal to strengthen the implementation of Article 5.3 and expand its focus from the national to the international level was accepted unanimously.

We, at UNDP, will continue to work with the FCTC Secretariat and WHO to coordinate international efforts and develop tools to help countries protect their health policies. 

On the bright side, though industry tactics have evolved, so have states’ responses. Some countries – like Norway and Australia – have divested their government funds from tobacco industry investments. Many countries – like the Philippines and Brazil – are adopting codes of conduct and guidelines for government employees’ interaction with the tobacco industry. Others are working to unwind state ownership of tobacco industry, and treating those companies as they would private or multinational tobacco industries.


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