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Summit to Focus on Tobacco and Disease

The 16th World Conference on Tobacco or Health will be held next month in Abu Dhabi. The five-day meeting will feature the latest in smoking control efforts. The World Health Organization estimates tobacco kills nearly six million people every year, mostly in low- and middle-income countries.

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The conference theme is Tobacco and Non-communicable Diseases or NCDs. They include cancer, stroke cardiovascular and lung disease and diabetes. While tobacco kills six million a year, the WHO reports NCDs take the lives of 16 million people annually before they reach age 70.

It’s the first-time the conference – which is held every three years – will focus on NCDs.

Dr. Ehsan Latif is director of the Tobacco Control Department for the International Union Against Tuberculosis and Lung Disease, more commonly known as The Union.

“Tobacco use and cigarettes and smoking is one of the main factors in causing all the NCDs,” he said.

Non-communicable diseases, he said, will increase as smoking increases.

“They will. Given the current use of tobacco and smoking, which is increasing mostly in the developing countries, we can predict an increase in the NCDs over the coming years if nothing is done,” Latif said.

But with all that is known about the health risks of tobacco, why is smoking on the rise in low- and middle-income countries?

Latif said, “It’s just a lack of legislation and awareness of the people. The governments recognize that something needs to be done, but their efforts are undermined by the presence of a very strong tobacco industry. These tobacco industries are bigger than the economies of some of the countries that we work in. And their pressure and false impression given to the governments of the economic contribution they have just paralyzes some of these governments of introducing a good tobacco control effort.”

Tobacco companies have claimed in the past that governments can boost revenues by taxing cigarette sales. Critics said any financial benefits are far outweighed by the burden on health care.

Latif said smoking is on the rise especially in one particular age group.

“It’s particularly the young and the young adults where the incidence keeps increasing. Because as you grow old you become more aware of what the environment is – whether it’s good and bad for you. But young people [are] under different influences, like peer pressure, stress, false sense of safety.”

And he said cigarette advertising is aimed at the young.

“You don’t see the tobacco industry sponsoring an event for 60-year-olds. They always sponsor it for young adults. You have concerts. You have got rallies. You’ve got things which attract the young people and those are the ones sponsored by the industry to increase their sales in this age group.”

Latif said the rise in smoking in developing countries coincides with the adoption of the Western-style diet, which is laden with sugar, salt and fat.

Latif said, “As you modify your behaviors – as you look at these fast food chains opening up in low and middle income countries – and as some of the economies [are] in transition – these things become more affordable. In the low and middle income countries it’s seen as a fashion, as a fad. If you want to look trendy you need to go to a fast food chain, which is popular in the West as well.”

The World Conference on Tobacco or Health is being held in the United Arab Emirates to raise awareness in the region. So, the conference will consider the use of shisha or waterpipes.

“We see shisha and waterpipe as a gateway to smoking. So, the impression given by the shisha makers is that it does not contain any tobacco – or it does not have those kinds of health hazards as direct smoking would have. Well, that we know is entirely false. It has the same hazards as if you smoke a cigarette. It’s the same as if you smoke a low tar cigarette or a high tar content cigarette. The effects are the same. They all kill you,” said Latif.

There’s also concern about e-cigarettes or electronic cigarettes. They are marketed as a safer alternative, but health officials are concerned about potential addiction and have not called them safe.

The World Health Organization Framework Convention on Tobacco Control has been in effect since 2005. Supporters said the treaty is in response to the “globalization of the tobacco epidemic.” It addresses – what they called – “the devastating worldwide health, social, economic and environmental consequences of tobacco consumption and exposure to tobacco smoke.”

Latif added reducing noncommunicable diseases will require efforts on multiple fronts.

“When we look at NCDs and the causes of NCDs we are also talking about the alcohol industry, the food industry. So, we will be going up against, not only the tobacco industry, but also other powerful industries as well. And that’s not going to be easy. So we need all the support and the resources we can get,” he said.

The 16th World Conference on Tobacco or Health will be held in Abu Dhabi from March 17-21.